Military chiefs advocate keeping 'Don't ask' for now; McCain threatens block

The top Marine Corps, Army and Air Force officers said Friday Congress should not scrap the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the near-term, and a key Senate Republican threatened to block a bill containing repeal language from being debated. 

After hearing testimony from the service chiefs, who said repealing the ban now would add more stress to troops during a time of war, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRedistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities MORE (R-Ariz.) suggested he could move to prevent floor debate on the 2011 defense authorization bill, which contains the repeal provision.

McCain expressed confidence that the rest of the Republican conference would join him because repealing the ban is not a "compelling" issue at a time when the military is fighting two wars and the U.S. economy is "in the tank." All Senate Republicans have pledged to block consideration of any bill that does not address extending current tax rates or funding the federal government.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services panel, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff of the Air Force, said implementation of repeal in the short-term would be “risky” and recommended it should not happen until 2012, at the earliest.

Gen. James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, pleaded against repeal implementation as the Marines fighting in Afghanistan “are singularly focused on combat” in a “deadly environment.”  

Doing so “has strong potential for disruption at the small unit level, will no doubt divert leadership attention away from almost singular focus of preparing units for combat,” Amos said in his opening statements.

Amos’s Army counterpart, Gen. George Casey, who led forces during the Iraq war, said Friday the law that prohibits gays from serving openly should be repealed “eventually,” but stressed he would not recommend “going forward at this time” given all the missions the Army “has on its plate.”

Casey said swift implementation of repeal will “add another level of stress to an already stretched force.”

The officers’ testimony likely will fuel the arguments of critics who oppose repeal of the Clinton-era law. 

Their much-anticipated Senate appearance comes on the heels of the release of a 10-month Pentagon report into the implications of repealing the law.

McCain said Thursday it would be “premature” to rush through legislation scrapping the Clinton-era ban on openly gay people serving in the military. McCain on Friday insisted more scrutiny is needed before Congress takes any action on legislation repealing the ban.

The fate of repeal now rests in the hands of the Senate, which has yet to consider the 2011 defense authorization bill that contains a provision to repeal the ban. The House has approved the legislation. 

Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden pays tribute to late Sen. Levin: 'Embodied the best of who we are' Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm dead at 85 MORE (D-Mich.), the chairman of Senate Armed Services, on Friday struck back at McCain's threat, saying the issue of repeal should be debated on the Senate floor. If the 2011 defense authorization bill does not make it to a full Senate vote, the changes of repeal will be dimmer next year. Republicans will have more seats in the next Senate and will have the majority in the House. 

Senate Majority Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (D-Nev.), a strong supporter of repeal, offered a scathing response to McCain's opposition to repealing the ban and bringing up the authorization bill.

“Senator McCain has been so all over the map on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ that we need an atlas to keep track of his positions," said Jim Manley, Reid's spokesman. "Now he’s telling us he won’t do what our military leadership has urged Congress to do because of the economy? If Senator McCain truly cared about the economy, he could start by getting his Republican colleagues to stop holding middle class tax cuts hostage to giveaways for millionaires and CEOs.

“Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen have told us that repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ immediately is the right thing to do for our military. Democrats will listen to their opinions, not Senator McCain’s constantly-changing reasons.”

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), a swing GOP vote, offered key support Friday for repeal. He said in a statement he supports repeal "based on the Secretary’s recommendations that repeal will be implemented only when the battle effectiveness of the forces is assured and proper preparations have been completed."

The Pentagon study found the Marine Corps and other troops serving in predominately male combat specialties, including special operations in the Navy and Air Force, had the highest number predicting a negative impact of repeal — 40 to 60 percent. 

Overall, the study found that allowing openly gay service members would not harm military missions. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this week that a “strong majority,” or “more than two-thirds,” of service members do not object to serving alongside openly gay soldiers.

The Commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert Papp, also warned Thursday that repeal implementation would not be “achieved without encountering significant challenges along the course.” 

Implementation of repeal “must proceed with caution,” he said in an opening statement.

But Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. James Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Friday provided a more positive take on repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” 

Roughead said he believes the Navy faces a “low” risk, with repeal of the policy, to readiness, effectiveness and cohesion. Meanwhile, Cartwright called for “prudence” and said he foresaw “a manageable risk” to military effectiveness even during wartime.

“There is little to suggest that the issues associated with a change in the law and DoD [Department of Defense] policy will diminish if we wait on the uncertain promise of a less challenging future,” Cartwright said.

Despite their concerns, the military services’ top uniformed officers said they will follow the letter of the law if it changes and carefully implement repeal.

Gates made the case Thursday that Congress should repeal the ban by year’s end, arguing it is a "matter of urgency" because the "judicial branch is becoming involved in this issue" and there is a "very real possibility that this change would be imposed immediately by judicial fiat — by far the most disruptive and damaging scenario I can imagine."

The Obama administration is appealing a California federal judge's ruling that "Don't ask, don't tell" is unconstitutional.

The provision included in the defense authorization bill requires President Obama, Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to certify that repeal will not affect military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Gates said Thursday he wouldn’t offer repeal certification until the service chiefs’ concerns are resolved and military leadership and forces are trained in the new policy. 

This story was last updated at 4:19 p.m.