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Senator: Obama should get Pentagon support on gays

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading U.S. Senate Democrat said on Sunday he expects President Barack Obama to keep a renewed vow to end discrimination against gays in the military, but that Obama should do so with the support of the Pentagon.

U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) makes remarks on his panel's investigating offshore tax havens during the Reuters Regulation Summit in Washington February 8, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the British and other Western armies have ended such discrimination and that it would be “great progress” for the United States to do it as well.

But Levin added: “It has to be done in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the (U.S.) military (that) I think is now possible.”

Levin made the comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” a day after Obama renewed a 2008 campaign vow to let gays serve openly in the military by ending the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” on sexual orientation.

The policy was signed into law in 1993 by then-Democratic President Bill Clinton as a compromise after the military objected to his calls to open its doors to gays.

The policy stopped the government from asking recruits or anyone in the military if they were homosexual, provided they did not disclose their sexual orientation.

Critics charge that having gays openly serve in the military would undermine morale and discipline. But others reject such complaints and call the current policy unfair and unwise.

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On Sunday, thousands of chanting and shouting gay rights demonstrators converged on the Capitol and White House. Many waved rainbow flags or carried signs espousing a wide variety of causes. One read: “The 14th Amendment Applies to me, too” and “End the Harm from Religious-based Bigotry and Prejudice.”

Obama offered no timetable for ending the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in his address on Saturday to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. But the president said he had reached out to members of Congress and the Pentagon.

Legislation is pending in Congress to end the policy and Levin’s committee would likely help shape any final measure.

“I think he (Obama) will and he can” end the policy, Levin said.

Retired General Richard Myers, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared with Levin on “Meet the Press” and declined to say if he believed it was time to end the policy. But Myers did agreed with the senator that the military should be part of any such decision.

Another influential retired general, Barry McCaffrey, also appearing on “Meet the Press,” said: “There isn’t any question it is time to change the policy.”

McCaffrey, who fought in the Vietnam War and commanded troops in the Persian Gulf War, said the key is for Congress to take the needed action. If Congress does so, he said, “I’m confident that the military will move ahead on it.”

Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Bill Trott