WASHINGTON Military brass raised doubts on Tuesday about lifting restrictions on homosexuals in the armed forces, weighing in on a debate in Congress over whether to back President Barack Obama's effort to let gays serve openly.
A key senator suggested a possible compromise: suspending discharges of gays from the military under the current policy, known as "don't ask, don't tell," for a while.
"That would mean that if for some reason it is not repealed, down the road, the current discharge policy would stay in place," Senator Carl Levin said.
Some polling says most Americans favor repealing the policy requiring gay service members to keep quiet about their homosexuality. But any change must be approved by Congress, and some lawmakers say they will be guided by the military brass.
Both Army General George Casey and Air Force General Norton Schwartz told lawmakers they were worried about the impact of such a change on a U.S. military under stress after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their caution contrasted with the views of the nation's top uniformed officer Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who made a strong appeal this month to allow gays to serve openly in the U.S. military.
Obama called for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" last month. Defense Secretary Robert Gates then launched a review, which could take up to a year, of steps to be taken to fully integrate gay members.
"I do have serious concerns about the impact of repeal of the law on a force that's fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for eight-and-a-half years," Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We just don't know the impacts on readiness and military effectiveness," Casey said, adding that he would be better able to judge after he participates in Gates' review.
Schwartz expressed a similar opinion before the House Armed Services Committee. He said it was his "strong conviction" that "this is not the time to perturb the force that is at the moment stretched by demand in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and agrees with Obama that gays should be able to serve openly, said the best way forward might be a moratorium on the policy.
Both Casey and Army Secretary John McHugh told Levin they would not favor a moratorium on dismissals while the policy is under review, saying this could complicate pending cases.
But Levin pointed out that pending cases might already be complicated by Obama's call for change. He asked McHugh and Casey to consult Army lawyers and report back to the panel on what they thought the legal impact of a moratorium might be.
Such a moratorium might be added later this year to legislation authorizing defense programs for fiscal 2011, Levin told Reuters after the hearing.
Gay activists were frustrated that Obama did not move more quickly on his campaign promise to overturn the law. Americans favor letting gays serve openly by a margin of 56 percent to 37 percent, a poll by Quinnipiac University said last year.
But lawmakers who oppose the move say they worry it could hurt morale and discipline.
The current policy dates to 1993, when President Clinton sought to lift the ban on gays in the armed forces. That year, Congress struck a compromise allowing gays to serve only if they remained silent about their homosexuality.
It also prohibits military officials from initiating inquiries about sexual orientation as long as soldiers are abiding by the rules.
On another subject, Casey said he thought it was time to re-examine the policy that places restrictions on women in combat roles. "We don't have an active effort going on, but I think it's time," he said.
Women are still barred from traditional frontline combat roles in the U.S. military. But female soldiers often run the same risks as men in Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombings and other insurgent attacks can target any U.S. unit.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa and Phil Stewart, Editing by Stacey Joyce)