WASHINGTON — Seventeen years after leading the fight in Congress against gays in the military, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn says he thinks gays could serve openly without damaging the armed forces' ability to fight.
In an interview this week, Nunn told The Associated Press that the law known as "don't ask, don't tell" should be overturned as long as there is enough time to prepare the troops for the change. He said the Pentagon should be given at least a year before the repeal takes effect to ensure operations in Afghanistan aren't affected.
"Society has changed, and the military has changed," the former senator from Georgia said.
Democrats have been trying unsuccessfully for months to repeal the law, which bans troops from acknowledging their sexual orientation. A provision in a broader defense policy bill would lift the ban, contingent upon certification by the president and the Pentagon that doing so wouldn't hurt military effectiveness.
But the latest attempt to pass the bill stalled in the Senate on Wednesday after Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she wouldn't vote to advance the legislation on procedural grounds and Democrats feared a critical test vote would fail.
Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Collins said talks would continue Thursday.
"We're getting close, but negotiations are still ongoing," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
The 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law was considered a compromise between President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the military ban on gays entirely, and the Pentagon, which warned that doing so would compromise military effectiveness.
Opponents in Congress, led by Nunn as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said they agreed with the military that allowing gays to serve would hurt the "cohesion," or bonds of trust, within a unit and that morale would suffer.
Throughout the 1993 debate, Nunn frequently sparred with his more liberal Democratic colleagues, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is gay.
In 2008, after Nunn's name was floated as a possible running mate for Barack Obama during the presidential campaign, Nunn said he thought the question of gays in the military deserved "another look." He declined to say at the time, however, whether he would support changing the law.
Last week, the Pentagon unveiled a study that found two-thirds of troops thought repealing "don't ask, don't tell" would have little impact on their unit's ability to fight.
Still, the service's top uniformed leaders cautioned about overturning the policy too soon. In congressional testimony last week, three of the four service chiefs said they would oppose lifting the ban during wartime because of resistance among combat troops.
While most troops signaled they didn't care if gays served openly, nearly 60 percent of the Marine Corps and Army soldiers in combat arms units predicted problems would arise.
"My suspicions are that the law will be repealed" eventually, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos told a Senate panel. "All I'm asking is the opportunity to do that at a time and choosing when my Marines are not singularly tightly focused on what they're doing in a very deadly environment."
Nunn said in the interview that he was swayed by the chiefs' testimony that repeal could be done as long as the Pentagon had enough time to prepare.
"That's a huge change" since 1993, he said. "I think that makes a big difference in perceptions of fairness and legitimacy in the law."