WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain attacked President Obama's drive to repeal the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" law as premature Thursday and labeled as flawed a Pentagon study that shows a majority of troops think changing the law wouldn't hurt their combat abilities.
The Arizona Republican's salvo at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing signaled trouble for Democratic hopes of a swift repeal of the 17-year-old Clinton-era law that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services.
"I remain concerned, as I have in the past and as demonstrated in this study, that the closer we get to service members in combat, the more we encounter concerns on whether 'don't ask, don't tell' should be repealed and what impact that would have on the ability of these units to perform their missions," McCain said. "These views should not be considered lightly, especially considering how much combat our forces face."
McCain's comments challenged testimony by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the committee that the law could be repealed without hurting U.S. military capabilities.
"This can be done, and it should be done, without posing a serious risk to military readiness," Gates testified.
Mullen added: "I believe our troops and their families are ready for this. Most of them already believe they serve or have served alongside gays and lesbians."
Most Democrats on the committee agreed, saying repealing the law is simply a matter of doing what's right.
"'Don't ask, don't tell' is an injustice to thousands of patriotic Americans who seek only the chance to serve the country they love without having to conceal their sexual orientation," said Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee's chairman.
"Anyone who believes that maintaining this policy is necessary to preserve our military's fighting effectiveness should read this report."
More than 115,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel responded to the eight-month-long study. Seventy percent said they thought there would be no effect or positive effect from lifting the ban of gays and lesbians serving openly.
But reservations were high among combat units, with 58 percent of Marines and 48 percent of Army respondents saying lifting the ban would have negative consequences. A substantial minority also said repeal could affect morale, training and whether they would stay in the military. Marines voiced the loudest opposition, the survey found.
McCain, a former Navy pilot, said that the survey's response rate of 28 percent — 115,000 of 400,000 service members whose opinions were sought — was too small and included almost no troops in combat areas. McCain also strongly suggested that the move to change the law was more about politics than policy.
"I'm troubled by the fact that this report represents the input of 28 percent of the force who received the questionnaire," McCain said. "That is only 6 percent of the force at large, I find it hard to view that as a fully representative sample set, but I am nonetheless weighing the contents of this reports on their merits."
The Armed Services Committee's Democratic staff disputed McCain's claims. They said that combat troops did participate in the survey — just not while they were engaged in combat. Information exchange forums — town hall meeting-type events — weren't conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to committee staff.
But they were held at places such as Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Camp Lejeune, N.C.; and other military installations where large numbers of troops who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan one or more times, or were preparing to be deployed, were stationed.
McCain blamed politics for pushing the matter forward during wartime. He predicted Marines, in particular, would abandon their service if they had to serve along with gays open about their sexual orientation.
"We send these young people into combat," said McCain. "We think they're mature enough to fight and die. I think they're mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness."
Gates shot back that asking troops if they want to serve alongside gays would amount to issuing a referendum on a policy decision that should be made by Congress or the courts. The goal of the study, he said, was to find out it if it could be done without hurting the military's ability to fight.
"Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours? You going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That's not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked in our entire history," Gates said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised a vote on "don't ask, don't tell" but, with Republican opposition and with the lame duck session of Congress rapidly coming to an end, a vote is unlikely.
McCain left open a sliver of daylight that he could shift his opposition to repeal.
"I'm not saying this law should never change," he said. "I am simply saying it may be premature to make such a change at this time and in this manner without further consideration of this report and further study of this issue by Congress."