The debate was largely drawn down party lines. Democrats were supportive of repeal based on the recommendations of the report, while Republicans voiced concerns over a possible repeal and accused Democrats of turning a social issue into a political one.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the committee, led the charge in favor of keeping the policy. McCain said that the time for repeal was not right due to the military’s ongoing commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McCain also questioned the validity of the report because it did not ask the question “Should “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” be repealed?” and because less than a quarter of all service members responded.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that America was on the “frontlines” in a turning point with regard to LGBT-rights.
“It’s just wrong to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation,” he said in his opening remarks.
“’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a stain on the military that we have a chance to remove,” he added.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) expressed concern over re-enlistment and pressed Gates for an answer on what would happen if substantial numbers of soldiers left the military if the policy were repealed.
“If I believed that a quarter of a million people would leave the military if given the opportunity, I could have concern, but I don’t believe that,” Gates responded.
Gates: Congress should act before courts
Gates and Mullen both stated that repeal should come from Congress rather than through the court system, which would leave the military inadequate time to prepare for a shift in policy.
In response to a lawsuit brought forward by the Log Cabin Republicans, a federal court struck down the policy as unconstitutional as it violated the due process and freedom of speech clauses.
The 9th Circuit of Appeals stopped enforcement of the lower court’s ruling days later. An appeal has been filed by the Department of Justice. The case has since been expedited and is expected to be heard early in the new year.
“If the court decision were to be similar to the district court order that was handed down in October, we would have zero time to prepare,” Gates said. “That is the worst imaginable outcome as far as I’m concerned.”
Mullen echoed Gates’ position before the committee.
Service chiefs question timing
The second half of the Armed Services Committee’s hearing featured the individual service chiefs from each branch of the military.
Each of the service chiefs suggested that the military would be able to handle repeal, though several disagreed on the timing. Gen. Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff for the Air Force, suggested deferring repeal in 2012, though he acknowledged the Air Force could handle repeal with limited risk.
Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, felt that repeal should come during a time of peace, rather than while the Marines are deployed in combat operations in Afghanistan.
“My recommendation would be that it begins when our singular focus is no longer on combat operations,” he said.
Gen. George Casey, current Chief of Staff of the United States Army, said that the policy should be repealed but also questioned the timing.
“Leadership is the key to everything. If we do this, it will get done and it will get done well,” he said. “I believe any course of action that gives us the time to prepare is the right course of action. We have to have the time to prepare.”
All six chiefs suggested repeal through Congress would be preferable to another court ruling that would find the policy unconstitutional.
Will lame-duck Congress act?
In the days following the committee’s hearing, high-level Republicans have questioned whether the 2011 Defense Authorization bill would even come before the full Senate for a vote during the lame-duck session.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Minority Leader, told David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the Defense Authorization bill typically takes weeks to debate. He expressed doubt that the Senate would take up the issue before the 112th Congress convenes in mid-January.
“My personal view is that Senator McCain is correct on this,” McConnell said. “I intend to follow his lead. We’ll find out when we finally get around to debating this bill, which I think will not be before the end of the year.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested that the required number of votes to avoid a Senate filibuster were not in place. Though, according to media reports, several GOP senators are in favor of repeal, including Sens. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Jon Ensign (R-Nev.).
According to multiple media outlets, Democratic leadership has been “supportive” of extending the lame-duck session in the Senate to allow for time to debate and possibly vote on the 2011 Defense Authorization bill. According to Huffington Post, an aide for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nv.) said Reid was considering extending the session, though as of press time, no commitments have been made.
In an interview with The Hill, a news publication that covers Congress, an aide for Sen. Lieberman said the senator favored keeping the Senate in session until repeal was passed.
“Sen. Lieberman believes that there are at least 60 votes to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ this year, provided that leadership allows time for sufficient debate and amendments,” Lieberman spokeswoman Erika Masonhall told The Hill.
“Wanting to go home is not an acceptable excuse for failing to pass a bill that provides essential support for our troops and veterans and failing to take action that the president, the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have called for.”
As of press time, the Senate had not scheduled debate on the Defense Authorization bill.
Top photo: Left: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, led the charge in favor of keeping the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers. Right: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified during Senate hearings that Congress should repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ before new lawmakers take office in January. (Photos by Michael Key)