Key Senators Appear Open To Ending 'Don't Ask'

Sens. Lieberman, Levin and McCain i i

hide captionSens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT, left), Carl Levin (D-MI, center) and John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, listen during a hearing about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Thursday on Capitol Hill.

David Gilkey/NPR
Sens. Lieberman, Levin and McCain

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT, left), Carl Levin (D-MI, center) and John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, listen during a hearing about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Thursday on Capitol Hill.

David Gilkey/NPR

Republican Sen. John McCain on Thursday intensified his assault on efforts to repeal the military's ban on openly gay service members, appearing increasingly contemptuous of the nation's top two Pentagon officials — both of whom support an end to the ban.

But at least two key committee Republicans whom Democrats have seen as potential votes for repeal — Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts — appeared open to supporting an end to the ban. So did Sen. Jim Webb, the only committee Democrat who voted against repeal when the measure was added to the defense bill earlier this year.

McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and the ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, has pledged to block Democrats' efforts to repeal the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" during Congress' current lame duck-session that ends this month.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, McCain seemed to double down on his opposition. He was prickly when questioning Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen about a new Pentagon report that concludes that repeal would have little effect on military operations.

Democrats have attached repeal language to the annual defense spending bill the Senate must take up, and will need to attract at least two Republican votes to get to the 60 votes they need to beat back McCain's filibuster threat. If repeal fails this year, it has little chance of being revived in the coming Congress, when Republicans take control of the House and increase their numbers in the Senate.

McCain's sometimes combative treatment of the military brass may have been the most attention-grabbing behavior at Thursday's hearing. (He even confronted Gates about why he hadn't "held anyone responsible" for information leaked to WikiLeaks). But repeal advocates were more closely focused on senators whose votes could move the measure in coming weeks.

Sen. Jim Webb i i

hide captionDemocratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia (left) speaks with fellow Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana during Thursday's hearing.

Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images
Sen. Jim Webb

Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia (left) speaks with fellow Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana during Thursday's hearing.

Chip Somodevilla /Getty Images

Webb: The Skeptical Democrat

Webb, a Vietnam War combat veteran like McCain and a former Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, said he voted against repeal in May because he wanted to see the results of the White House-ordered survey, and how repeal would be implemented.

On Thursday, he characterized the report, which was released Tuesday, as "an incredible piece of work."

"I believe you have really done the job here," he told Gates, Mullen and the two co-chairs of the working group that produced the review — Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department's general counsel.

"This report is probably the most crucial piece of information that we have in terms of really objectively moving forward to address the law," said Webb, who has a law degree and was elected to the Senate in 2006.

He questioned Ham on the percentage of service members who are gay or lesbian (about 2-3 percent, similar to the general population, Ham said), and asked the leaders how they would address the higher levels of repeal concerns among all-male combat units.

Mullen said the key for such units, which typically have less exposure to gay service members, is training and leadership. In his opening statement, Mullen said that he believes that, in fact, the combat units may do best with repeal implementation, "disciplined as they are."

Under repeal, he said, "nothing will change about our standards of conduct."

"There is no gray area here," Mullen said. "We treat each other with respect or we find another place to work. Period." He also said: "War does not stifle change, it demands it."

Webb expressed his "respect and appreciation" to the leaders and report authors: "It's really a landmark piece of work, in my view."

Scott Brown i i

hide captionRepublican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, shown in a file photo, appears open to supporting an end to the ban.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Scott Brown

Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, shown in a file photo, appears open to supporting an end to the ban.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Brown: The New Republican

Brown, of Massachusetts, the committee's newest Republican, questioned the service members' 28 percent response rate to surveys about repeal implementation, but focused more on what would happen after the policy is rolled back.

If the Senate repeals "don't ask, don't tell," it would not, according to the measure being considered, go into effect until the Defense Department has prepared the policies and rules for implementation, has established training standards, and the policy change is certified by President Obama, Gates and Mullen.

Gates told Brown that his approach would be that "everything has to be done" before certification is signed — from training to making sure the service chiefs are "comfortable" that readiness and unit cohesion have been addressed to their satisfaction.

Brown asked whether Gates could guarantee that he wouldn't certify the change until he's comfortable that the process can move forward without affecting military readiness.

Gates: "Absolutely."

Update: Brown said Friday that he supports legislation to repeal the don't ask, don't tell policy.

Sen. Susan Collins i i

hide captionRepublican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Susan Collins

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Collins: The Maine Moderate

Collins, who has been amenable to repeal provided it gets a full Senate airing, told the military leaders that she was struck by their "excellent point" that the fact that the nation is at war makes this a better, rather than worse, time to end the ban.

"Making a change like this makes us better," Collins said, "it doesn't make us worse."

She referred to the report as a "very comprehensive exercise," and pushed back on McCain's assertion that service members should have been directly asked whether they support repeal, rather than surveyed about how repeal should be implemented.

"Our troops aren't asked" whether they want to be deployed to Afghanistan, she said, or whether there should be a surge in Iraq.

And given the number and breadth of survey responses, she says, "the report, in fact, does convey a sense of what service members wanted to see."

McCain's Case

McCain's case against repeal continued to hinge on three issues: that only 28 percent of the 400,000 service members who were sent surveys ended up responding; that those same service members weren't asked directly about repeal; and that combat units expressed much higher levels of opposition to ending the ban.

He assailed the report as flawed, and at one point seemed to suggest that Gates and Mullen have fallen short of being "great leaders" because they didn't poll service members to gauge their support for repeal.

He took issue with Gates' characterization of some top military leaders as being "less sanguine" about ending the ban, and accused the defense secretary of characterizing combat troops' concerns as "exaggerated." (Gates said he didn't recall using the word "exaggerated," saying he "takes those concerns seriously.")

Gates also took his own shot at McCain. The senator complained about a rush to repeal and said he and his staff "are still going through" the report. Said Gates later: The information in the report is "not that complicated to absorb."

It was a particularly derisive performance by McCain, and one that prompted Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri to express disappointment "in the rhetoric surrounding this issue — particularly directed [to] civilian leaders."

For the record, she said, "Secretary Gates was selected by President Bush to lead the Department of Defense" and asked to stay on by Obama.

"I think you represent the highest tradition of civilian leadership of our military that we may have ever had," she said.

McCain persisted.

"Why not ask the question" about repeal? McCain queried Mullen.

Said Mullen: "It's an incredibly bad precedent to ask them to vote on a policy."

McCain: "It's not voting, sir."

On Friday, the hearing will continue with testimony from the heads of the military branches.

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