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WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans continued their opposition to repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law on Thursday, attacking the Pentagon’s new study as shortsighted and lacking the real views of military personnel.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a former Vietnam prisoner of war, has led the chorus of anti-repeal arguments and implored his colleagues again during the first of two days of hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I am not saying this law should never change,” he said. “I am simply saying that it may be premature to make such a change at this time and in this manner … without further study of the issue by Congress.”

At the opposite end of the debate was Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recounted having served alongside gays during Vietnam without any detriment to the mission. He said the study only confirmed what he had long suspected, that gays could be allowed to serve openly with minimal disruption.

“And so what was my personal opinion is now my professional opinion,” he said. “I would not recommend a repeal of this law if I did not believe in my soul that it was the right thing to do for our military, for our nation and for our collective honor.”

The two men sparred at several points in the hearing, with McCain questioning Mullen’s leadership and willingness to listen to the opinions of his subordinates because the survey did not specifically ask troops if they would support a repeal.

A flustered Mullen responded that such a question would amount to letting troops vote on military policy, something he strongly opposed. Instead, more focused questions in the survey helped indicate where troops stand on the issue and the ramifications of a repeal.

The hearings were designed to bolster support for a vote on repeal later this month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised to bring the measure to the full Senate before the end of the year.

But Democrats, who currently controls 58 votes in the chamber, will have to gain support from at least two Republicans to avoid a filibuster on the measure, a problem that stalled the bill in September. On Wednesday, the 42 Republican senators sent a letter to Reid, vowing to block all legislation until an extension of tax cuts is dealt with by the chamber.

McCain has promised to fight the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal past that, calling it a politically motivated move being rushed through Congress.

Mullen said lawmakers should not fear dramatic policy change while U.S. troops are deployed to two overseas combat zones.

“War does not stifle change,” he said. “It demands it.”

But Republicans offered no indication that the report or military officials’ own confidence in a repeal has changed their minds.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said the current policy works for both gay and straight servicemembers and should stay in place. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., worried that too few troops responded to a opinion survey attached to the report — 28 percent of 400,000 contacted participated in the survey — to draw accurate conclusions.

And several members cited opposition among Army and Marine Corps combat troops, more than half of whom told surveyors that repealing the law could have a negative impact on their work and morale.

“The closer we get to servicemembers in combat, the more we encounter concerns about whether ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ should be repealed, and what impact that would have on the ability of these units to perform their mission,” McCain said. “These views should not be considered lightly, especially considering how much combat our force is facing.”

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believes those concerns reflect stereotypes and fears based on inexperience with openly gay colleagues, and pointed to other survey results which showed little mission disruption among units who already know of a gay colleague.

One key swing vote for Democrats is committee member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. On Thursday, she praised the report and its findings, saying it calmed her fears about making a change during a time of war and gave a comprehensive view of troops’ attitudes on the topic. But she did not commit to helping Democrats pass a repeal.

Opponents of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal said they’re confident that she and other moderate Republicans won’t change sides before the end of the legislative session this month.

Gates told the members that he hopes a repeal can be passed before a court order further complicates the current law. Last month, a federal district court ordered halted enforcement of the law for two days before an appeals court stayed the order.

He said a legislative repeal would allow defense officials to complete sensitivity training and deal with servicemembers’ concerns, but he would not commit to how many months or years such a process might take.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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