With the clock ticking down to the end of the 111th Congress, Defense Secretary Robert Gates today said he is not banking on lawmakers succeeding this year in repealing the 1993 law banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
“I’d have to say I’m not particularly optimistic that they’re going to get this done,” Gates told sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is deployed in the Arabian Sea. “I hope that they would.”
Gates, who urged the Senate last week to act quickly on the matter, reiterated his concerns that a court could abruptly overturn the law if Congress fails to act quickly. A provision in the House-passed version of the fiscal 2011 Defense authorization bill – which is also in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s stalled version of the measure – gives the Pentagon “enormous latitude” to prepare for a change, Gates said.
“My greatest fear is that we will be told that this law will be overturned by a court, and we will be told to implement it without any time for preparation for training, any of the other efforts that need to be undertaken to prepare us for such a change,” he said.
The Senate plans to adjourn for the year by December 17 and has a long to-do list before leaving town. The Defense authorization bill remains in the mix of items to be considered in the next two weeks, but the Senate simply may not have enough time to get to the measure once it finishes with other items on the legislative agenda.
The bill has been stalled for several reasons, including the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal provision and Republican concerns that they will not get ample time to offer amendments on a wide range of defense issues.
If the Senate does manage to pass the bill by the end of the year, the House and Senate would still need to hold formal conference negotiations and approve the final legislation.
During his visit to the carrier today, Gates also acknowledged the concerns aired during a Senate Armed Services hearing on Friday by the chiefs of the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps about repealing the law during wartime.
“Their view is, by and large, is that it should come but not now. And we’ll see where the Congress goes with it. I don’t think the world is going to get any less stressful in the years ahead,” Gates said.
The legislation would require the White House and Pentagon to certify that repealing the law will not affect unit cohesion, military readiness, or troop morale. The repeal would take effect 60 days after certification.
Gates has refused to speculate on how long he believes the repeal of the law would take to implement. But he has said repeatedly that he would not sign off on the certification until any training is completed and the service chiefs – many of whom have expressed reservations about allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly -- are comfortable that lifting the ban would not have an affect on unit cohesion or combat effectiveness.
“We’re not going to dawdle, and the president will not want us to delay, but I also want to do it carefully and the service chiefs are in the best position to know,” he said today.
James Kitfield contributed contributed to this article.