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WASHINGTON — A Massachusetts Democrat plans to reintroduce legislation to overturn the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, a move his supporters hope will lead to lengthy debate on the issue in the new Congress.

The bill — to be introduced Wednesday by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. — failed to pass out of committee last year. It states that military officials may not bar any servicemember or recruit from the armed forces on the basis of sexual orientation.

It would also allow any troops kicked out of the services under the “don’t ask” policy to reapply for military duty.

Last session, three Republicans — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland — and nearly 120 Democrats signed on to co-sponsor the legislation. Many of them, including the GOP trio, have publicly stated they will support the bill again.

Current policy, put in place in 1993, prohibits openly lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens from serving in the military. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network claims that over the past 13 years the Defense Department has discharged more than 11,000 servicemembers under the regulation.

Steve Ralls, spokesman for the network, said he expects the issue to get its first serious debate in Congress in years now that Democrats control both chambers.

In addition to Meehan’s bill, he said his group has spoken with several senators about introducing companion legislation in their chamber by April, which would be the first time the Senate wrestled with the issue.

“It’s a chance to begin a real debate, and we’re much more optimistic about its chances,” he said.

But Robert Maginnis, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who helped develop the current policy, said overturning the ban on openly gay troops would be “political suicide” for lawmakers.

“We’re in a war, and the public has no stomach for a battle on a contentious issue when it’s not clear this would help the war effort,” he said.

Maginnis, who still works as a consultant for the Army, said allowing homosexuals to serve openly would hurt unit cohesion, and compared that ban to rules barring recruits without high school diplomas or with poor physical fitness from serving.

“You want someone who can be part of a team and work effectively,” he said. “Someone on the outside could cause problems with that teamwork.”

Ralls disagreed, calling hearings on the issue a “important educational opportunity” to dispel myths that openly gay servicemembers would hurt other troops’ morale.

Aaron Belkin, director of the University of California’s Michael D. Palm Center, which “promotes the interdisciplinary analysis” on the issues of gays in the military, said he thinks the conflict overseas will have little factor on the debate.

“The assumption there is that integration will be a big deal,” he said. “But this was a non-event in Britain when they integrated. No one (in the military) will notice a difference.”

Belkin also said he thinks overturning the ban is inevitable, as public acceptance of homosexuals increases.

Meehan will speak at several events this week about his bill, including a speech at the Boston College Law School on Monday.


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