U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A House panel voted Wednesday to delay President Barack Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' argument that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" will have little impact on the armed forces.
In a series of contentious votes, the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee added provisions to the military budget for next year that strikes at the policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the 17-year-old ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.
The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., that would require all four service chiefs to certify that the change won't hurt readiness or undermine the military. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.
"I want them to sign off on the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Hunter said of the military leaders, arguing that Obama never served in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has never been in ground combat and Gates is a political appointee. "I, and others in this room, have more combat experience than the folks who sign off on 'don't ask, don't tell.'"
That drew a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee.
"That's a dangerous thing to say, that they're not quite qualified to make military decisions," Smith said of Obama, Gates and Mullen. "The president decides to go to war, they decided to take out Osama bin Laden."
In fact, the service chiefs have told Congress they communicate frequently with Gates and Mullen, and their opinions on whether the policy would hurt the troops' ability to fight are carefully considered. Last month in testifying, the four services chiefs largely echoed Gates' assessment that repeal would have little impact on the military.
Obama signed the law in December after a divided Congress passed the legislation. Final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban wouldn't affect readiness. Military leaders say the training should be completed by midsummer, setting the stage for certification.
That timetable — plus strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate — likely will render the House panel's provisions moot.
Still, the committee approved a provision by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would prohibit the use of military facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies and bar Defense Department employees from conducting such ceremonies. The vote was 38-23.
On Tuesday, the Navy abruptly reversed its decision that would have allowed chaplains to perform same-sex unions if the Pentagon certifies openly gay military service later this year.
The House panel Wednesday also approved an amendment by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of military benefits, regulations and policy. The vote was 39-22.
The committee worked toward early Thursday morning on a broad, $553 billion defense blueprint that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines, and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still pending in the marathon session were amendments on the pace of withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and the transfer of detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Earlier in the day, the panel voted to limit Obama's authority to reduce the nation's nuclear arsenal and implement a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in December.