WASHINGTON -- Members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees warned July 20 that Democratic leaders may try to overturn the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy during a lame duck session of Congress so as not to offend conservative voters prior to the election.
The House already has passed but the Senate has yet to vote on a defense authorization bill containing an amendment that almost certainly would reverse the military's prohibition against open homosexual service. If it makes it through the Senate, it would have to pass the House once again because the two bills have differences. Among those differences, the Senate version has an amendment that would eliminate a ban on privately funded abortions in military health care facilities.
With their House majority at stake and a host of Senate races rated as toss-ups, Democrats may decide to punt any decision on the bill -- along with several other controversial ones -- until after Nov. 2.
Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he's prepared to offer amendments striking the Don't Ask, Don't Tell and pro-abortion language from the bill. That could put some Senate Democrats -- especially those from conservative states running for re-election -- in a tough spot.
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"[Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid is very concerned about bringing up the defense authorization bill, because if he does, we're going to have these amendments," Inhofe said. "That means that those people coming up for an election in November -- and I'm talking about the wobbly Democrats who want to do what the Democrats say to do but they know how the people at home feel -- they don't want to [be] on record. So I think for that reason he may just wait and bring it up in the lame duck session."
Rep. Todd Akin, R.-Mo., agreed.
"Our big window of danger is after the elections, particularly if you have people who have lost their election and they don't care," Akin said. "... We've got a tremendous danger in a lame duck."
Inhofe and Akin made their comments during a webcast sponsored by Family Research Council Action titled "Mission Compromised: How the military is being used to advance a radical agenda."
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The bill's language regarding Don't Ask, Don't Tell would repeal the policy only after a survey of military personnel -- which has begun -- is complete and only after President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen have OK'd a repeal. All three, though, are on record as supporting a repeal. Gates said in February, "The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare it for it."
"You keep hearing, 'No, it's not a done deal yet.' Well, I suggest that it is," Inhofe said. "... They've already made up their minds."
Inhofe said he recently returned from a trip to Iraq in which military personnel expressed to him concern that their voice isn't being heard. He said personnel told him, "We want to be heard and now we find out that ... they've already decided how it's gonna turn out."
Mullen backs a repeal despite the fact that the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- apparently are not on board. In May all four military chiefs reiterated their support for completing review of the current policy before Congress acts.
In February General James T. Conway, the Marine Corps Commandant and a Joint Chiefs member, told a Senate committee "the current policy works."
"My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary and to the president would be to keep the law such as it is," Conway said.
General George W. Casey Jr., the Army's representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he's concerned about a reversal's impact on military readiness.
"I don't believe that it would increase readiness," he said.
The Family Research Council Action webcast included retired military personnel who described the need for the current policy.
"The military lives in close quarters. Whenever you get a group ... who are deployed, privacy goes out of the window. There are a lot of physical issues," said Benjamin Ratcliff, who is retired from the U.S. Army.
Ratcliff read part of the military's warrior ethos, which says, "I will always place the mission first."
"By using the military to advance the social agenda, I think they're not placing the mission first," Ratcliff said.
Overturning the policy will hurt recruitment, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a former Marine, said.
"Disproportionately, those who serve in the military come from conservative, even religious backgrounds," Perkins said. "Even geographically, there's a disproportionate number of people coming from conservative areas of the country."
In April more than 40 retired military chaplains sent a letter to President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warning that the careers of many if not most military chaplains will end if the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is overturned. The letter warned that reversing the policy will negatively impact religious freedom and could even affect military readiness and troop levels because the military would be marginalizing "deeply held" religious beliefs.
Military chaplains, the retired chaplains said, "are integral to maintaining high morale."
"Marginalizing a large group of chaplains, then, will unavoidably harm readiness by diminishing morale," the letter said. "Similarly, making orthodox Christians -- both chaplains and servicemen -- into second-class Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines whose sincerely held religious beliefs are comparable to racism cannot help recruitment or retention."
Keith Travis, team leader of the chaplaincy evangelism team at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, signed the letter. A former chaplain in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserves, he said the chaplaincy "as we know it today hangs in the balance."
"It's a critical juncture at this point for ministry and chaplaincy," Travis told Baptist Press. "There are secondary and tertiary effects if this policy is overturned that will take place that people are not thinking about and they don't even see at this point."
Travis added, "It could limit our chaplains on what they could preach. Can they even preach about sin? Can homosexuality be called sin?"