SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia (Reuters) - A long-awaited Pentagon report on the impact of lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military will be sent to Congress and released publicly on November 30, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday.
The release would be a day earlier than previously expected as the Pentagon pushes to get the report to the Senate Armed Services Committee before hearings on the issue, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
The report, in the works since February, could have a significant impact on the Obama administration's effort to push a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy through Congress before the end of the year.
The policy bars gays from serving openly in the military but allows them to serve in the armed forces as long as they keep their sexual orientation private.
Speaking to reporters in Santa Cruz, where he was attending a conference of Americas defense ministers, Gates indicated he preferred the issue be resolved by Congress rather than the courts. A judge in October ordered the Pentagon to stop enforcing the policy, but the order has been stayed pending appeal.
"All I know is if this law is going to change, it's better that it be changed by legislation ... rather than have it struck down by the courts, with the potential for us having to implement it immediately," he said.
President Barack Obama has pledged to do away with the policy, adopted in 1993, but big gains by Republicans in the November 2 elections have raised doubts about whether he can muster the votes to end the ban once the new Congress takes power in January.
Obama has urged lawmakers to pass the measure this year, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would be considered as part of a bill authorizing defense spending that would brought up for a vote after the Thanksgiving holiday break.
Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, who had pressed for the report's early release, welcomed Gates' decision and said in a statement it would give lawmakers the time they needed to review the findings and proceed with a repeal.
"We think Congress can and should repeal this discriminatory policy now," they said.
Gates said on Sunday he sought the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" report in February in an effort to inform the Pentagon what it needed to do if the law were changed and to help lawmakers as they considered the repeal.
The report, which included a survey of service members, has been closely guarded, but The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the group conducting the study had determined the ban on gays could be lifted with little impact on the military and the current wars.
The Post said more than 70 percent of active-duty and military reserve members said in a survey the impact of lifting the ban would be positive, mixed or nonexistent. Gates launched an investigation of the leaking incident.
Gates intended initially to have the report on his desk by December 1, with further review to follow. But he has accelerated the schedule to get the report to the Armed Services Committee.
"The secretary has instructed his staff, without cutting any corners, to have everything ready a day sooner because he wants to ensure members of the Armed Services Committee are able to read and consider the complex, lengthy report before holding hearings with its authors and the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Morrell said.
A federal judge ordered the military to stop enforcing the ban in October and there has been confusion about the policy as higher courts have upheld or overruled implementation of the order while awaiting an appeal.
At one point, the military had four different policies in the space of two weeks, Gates said, which raised his concern about having the issue settled by the courts.
"Having to implement this immediately and without preparation and without taking the steps to mitigate whatever risks there are, I think, is the worst of all possible outcomes, being directed to do it by a court with no notice," Gates said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)