A top Republican warned on Thursday it might be too soon to end the US military's ban on gays, as the party geared up to block President Barack Obama's bid to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy this year.
"I am not saying this law should never change. I am simply saying that it may be premature to make such a change at this time, and in this manner," said Senator John McCain, addressing the US defense secretary and top military officer as they appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
McCain and some fellow Republicans on the committee also caste doubt on the conclusions and methodology of a Pentagon study released two days ago that predicted little impact if the 17-year-old policy were ended.
Homosexuals currently are allowed to serve in the armed forces as long as they keep their sexual orientation private. Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 on a pledge to fully repeal the law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
The effort, however, faces a promised Republican procedural roadblock in the 100-member Senate, and it's unclear if Democrats can muster the needed 60 votes to clear it.
"They (Democrats) face an uphill climb," a senior Republican aide said.
Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, a committee member, said he didn't know how the vote to repeal would shake out in the chamber, which Democrats currently control by a 58-42 margin.
"It seems to be pretty much right down partisan lines at the moment, but that might not be the case," Nelson said in an interview.
At least 13,000 men and women have been expelled from the military under the ban.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected arguments that the military was too strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to integrate openly serving homosexuals.
"War does not stifle change, it demands it," Mullen said in his testimony.
"If not now, when?" Gates asked in his testimony. He dismissed the notion that it would be easier to wait for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a possibility not seen until at least 2015.
"As I look ahead in the world, I don't see the world being a safer, easier place to live in where our troops are necessarily under less stress (in the future)," he said.
Obama's repeal effort has gained added urgency after fellow Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives and saw their majority cut in the Senate in the Nov. 2 congressional elections.
The White House sees a narrow window of opportunity to get the ban repealed in the three weeks before the current Democratic-controlled Congress adjourns for the holidays and the new Congress takes power in January.
But repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" could also fail for other reasons that have nothing to do with divided, heated views on the issue in the US Senate.
Republicans also are threatening to block any legislation that might come up until Congress acts on extending Bush-era tax cuts and passes needed legislation to keep the federal government up and running.
"I'm inclined to the personal view that 'Don't Ask/Don't Tell' has been pretty effective. And I'm
dubious about the change," Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said.
Lindsey Graham, another Republican, said: "I just haven't heard a lot of people saying in the ranks themselves, 'I wish this policy would change.'"
Sessions and Graham are members of the Armed Services Committee.
Mullen made a forceful argument for repeal, saying it was not just possible for the US military, it was a moral imperative.
"We've got thousands of men and women who are willing to die for their country but we ask them to lie about who they are every single day," Mullen said. "And I just fundamentally think that is wrong."