Lawmakers launch bill to end military gay ban

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pushing back against Pentagon opposition, lawmakers said on Wednesday they would forge ahead with legislation to lift restrictions on homosexuals in the armed forces before a year-long military review is completed.

Gay demonstrators and supporters hold a rainbow flag as one lays down on the sidewalk while they shout slogans during a protest against General Peter Pace, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, at a U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station, in New York's Time's Square, March 15, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Following President Barack Obama’s call for ending the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, the lawmakers said they would seek to repeal the law in coming months, or at least place a moratorium on discharges under the ban as an interim step.

“We’re going for full repeal because that really is the solution we need to this problem. We’re going to fight for as much support as we can get,” said Senator Joe Lieberman as he and others introduced legislation to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he supports Obama’s decision. But he and military leaders want Congress to hold off on lifting restrictions until the Pentagon completes a study to assess the impact of a repeal and the best way to implement the changes.

That review must be completed by December 1 under guidelines by Gates announced this week.

“Right now, we’re not in a position to offer any advice to Congress on a legislative remedy to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ if they wanted to pursue one. We just don’t know enough about the impact,” said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary.

“So the secretary wants to take the next nine, 10 months and focus on figuring out the implications of a change in the law for our forces, for their families, for readiness, for recruiting, for retention, for all of the potential consequences of the change in the law.”

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, speaking at the news conference with Lieberman, said his committee could act as soon as May on Lieberman’s legislation.

Senators could try to add the repeal, or a moratorium on discharges, to the annual bill that authorizes U.S. defense programs, said Levin, who is a Democrat.

But Pentagon officials leading the policy review wondered why lawmakers didn’t wait for the results. “I would think Congress would like to hear from us first before undertaking to consider to repeal (the law),” Jeh Johnson, Pentagon general counsel, told a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Johnson and General Carter Ham, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, are co-chairing the Pentagon study.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, whose support for the repeal has set him at odds with some senior members of the U.S. military, said the study was crucial to properly lead a significant policy change.

Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was crucial the politically charged question not add further stress to a force already stretched thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“One of my biggest concerns is that this review and this issue not put a heavily strained military in the middle of this debate in a way that burdens them when they are pressed as hard as they’ve ever been pressed,” Mullen told students in Kansas.

The repeal is a crucial test for Obama, who is struggling to fulfill promises like enacting healthcare reform despite having a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

Lieberman said he believes a majority favors the legislation in the Senate, but that currently there are not 60 votes for the repeal -- a crucial threshold for being able to overcome procedural hurdles in the chamber. “That’s our battle, but we’ve come a hell of a long way,” he said.

Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military by 57 percent to 36 percent, a recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed.

Additional reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Todd Eastham