By Roxana Tiron - 02/02/10 07:21 PM EST
The nation’s senior military officials removed a huge obstacle to gays serving openly in the military by telling Congress on Tuesday that they support President Barack Obama’s decision to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
Adm. Mike Mullen is the first sitting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support an end to the controversial policy.
Biden, in an interview with MSNBC, vowed that “Don’t ask, don’t tell’ would be gone by the year’s end. His statement is likely to interject the hot-button issue into an increasingly tense 2010 election season.
The administration can’t repeal the law without Congress’s hand. But scrapping the law faces strong opposition from Republicans and from some key conservative Democrats in the House, among them Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who faces a more intense reelection campaign than usual.
Mullen, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, took an impassioned stand in support of scrapping the law.
“It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as institutions,” Mullen added.
Gates announced during the hearing that he’s tapping Pentagon legal counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of Army forces in Europe, to lead a yearlong study on how the military would lift its ban on openly gay service members.
Gates acknowledged the issue is controversial and stressed that he wanted to keep politics out of the Pentagon’s efforts to review repealing the Clinton-era law.
Instead, Gates received a good dose of politics during the hearing. Some Democratic supporters questioned why the Pentagon needs more than a year to implement a repeal, while Republicans, particularly former presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), rebuked him for saying the impending Pentagon review will examine how, not whether, to repeal the ban.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) suggested that Mullen had preordained the outcome of any study by expressing his opposition to the ban.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, supports repeal, but expressed some concern that it would take the Pentagon a long time to implement it.
He indicated the 2011 defense authorization bill could be a good vehicle to carry a moratorium of the law until it is repealed.
Both Gates and Mullen pleaded with lawmakers for time to implement the repeal, but also stressed that a final decision rests with Congress. They noted the law cannot be repealed through executive action.
Should Congress approve new legislation repealing the law, Gates urged lawmakers to give the military at least a year to implement it.
“A guiding principle of our efforts will be to minimize disruption and polarization within the ranks, with special attention paid to those serving on the front lines. I am confident that this can be achieved.”
Gates is also directing the Pentagon to quickly review the regulations used to implement “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and, within 45 days, to present him with recommended changes to those regulations that, within existing law, “will enforce this policy in a more humane and fair manner.”
Gay-rights activists openly cheered during Gates’s and Mullen’s testimony and hailed their support of a repeal.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that has made the repeal its main focus, said a one-year-long study is “far too long and unnecessary.” SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis called for Congress to move on repeal legislation at the same time the Pentagon studies the issue.
Michael O'Brien contributed to this story.
This story was updated at 8:27 p.m.