WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Robert Gates and military leaders want Congress to hold off on lifting restrictions on homosexuals in the armed forces until a yearlong review is completed, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
"Taking action now would pre-empt the review process that everybody agrees is needed to do this smartly," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
President Barack Obama's call for repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bars gays from serving openly in the military, has put a spotlight on a hot-button issue before congressional elections in November.
Gates, who said earlier this month that he fully supported Obama's decision, has launched an internal review of the steps the U.S. military would have to take to integrate openly gay servicemembers.
The review is expected to be completed by year's end but officials said it could take another year beyond that to implement any changes.
"Taking action before it (the review) is done is putting the cart before the horse," Morrell said, referring either to passage of legislation repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy or a proposed moratorium.
Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, said this week that he would introduce legislation to change the law, though some lawmakers opposed the move.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee and agrees with Obama that gays should be able to serve openly, has suggested a possible compromise -- a moratorium suspending discharges of gays from the military under the current policy.
Such a moratorium could be added to legislation authorizing defense programs as it moves through Congress in the coming months, Levin told Reuters earlier this week.
Morrell said Gates agreed with top brass that it would be a "mistake" to pass a moratorium before the review is completed. He said the proposal amounted to a "repeal by another name."
Testifying before Congress earlier this week, top military leaders raised doubts about lifting the restrictions, citing the potential 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 Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has made a strong appeal to allow gays to serve openly.
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was signed into law in 1993 by Democratic President Bill Clinton as a compromise after the military objected to his calls to open its doors to gays.
Gay activists have urged Obama to move more quickly to carry out his campaign promise to overturn the law.
Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military by a margin of 56 percent to 37 percent, according to an opinion poll last year by Quinnipiac University.
As an interim step, Gates said, the Pentagon would review existing policies within 45 days to determine how "don't ask, don't tell" could be enforced in a more "humane and fair manner." This could include halting disciplinary proceedings against gay members of the military who are "outed" by others.
Morrell said that interim review could be completed early.
(Reporting by Adam Entous and Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham)