WASHINGTON -- A spontaneous Senate floor debate over the military's policy on homosexual service became heated Aug. 5, with Republican Sen. John McCain calling its proposed repeal part of a Democratic "social agenda" and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin defending the repeal by saying it will honor military protocol.
The exchange lasted 10 minutes and saw the two men, raising their voices, interrupt each other and try to get the last word. It took place immediately after the Senate confirmed Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan when Levin, of Michigan, asked the Senate to agree "by unanimous consent" to move toward consideration of the defense authorization bill, which contains language that would result in the overturning of what is commonly called the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Levin's motion could be stopped if only one member objected, which McCain did.
"I do so with some reluctance," said McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a veteran. It is, he argued, "disgraceful to have [the repeal] on this legislation" without a survey being completed to determine how overturning the policy would impact the "morale of the men and women in the military." Such a survey is underway and is scheduled to be completed in December.
"It's ... the chairman of the committee and the majority leader and the other side moving forward with a social agenda on legislation that was intended to ensure this nation's security," McCain, of Arizona, said. "Along with it, abortion is now going to be performed in military hospitals for the first time in a long time."
McCain was referencing another controversial portion of the bill which would reverse the current policy that prohibits elective abortions from being performed in military facilities. Just like the language overturning the military's policy prohibiting openly homosexual service, the pro-choice language reversing the military's abortion policy was added to the defense authorization bill in the committee, which Levin chairs.
"Each of the items which the senator from Arizona mentioned were voted upon in committee," Levin said. "... It was a Senate Armed Services Committee bill which put into place Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The provision that we have in there now which changes that policy makes it conditional upon that survey being completed and a certification from the military leaders that there is no negative impact on morale. So we have taken into consideration that survey."
Critics, though, have noted that the bill simply would require the certification from three people who already favor a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen.
McCain and Levin went back and forth at least five times. McCain noted that last year's defense authorization bill -- which designates how the military's money is to be spent -- included an amendment that expanded the hate crimes law to include homosexuals.
"Perhaps the senator from Michigan can tell me what hate crimes had to do with the defense of this nation. It had everything to do with the social agenda," McCain said.
Levin answered, "The men and women who defend this country, defend this country for a lot of reasons. One of them is that we try to act against hate in this country. That's one of the values that we stand for."
McCain wasn't satisfied.
"Really? Then that means that everything in the senator from Michigan's social agenda has to do with the men and women who are serving in the military," McCain said.
He added later, referencing the 2009 debate, "We spent almost the first two weeks debating hate crimes, which had nothing to do with the purpose and mission of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It's the first time I've ever seen such a thing happen. I'm not going to let it happen again if I have anything to say about it."
The bill also has $1 billion in what McCain labeled pork, he said.
"It is a terrible piece of legislation, ramrodded through," he said.
Despite McCain's stance, the Senate could take up the bill in September when it gets back from its August recess. Republicans could filibuster the bill if the entire caucus of 41 senators remains united, although that may not be possible. There are other options, including offering amendments on the floor.
One such amendment being floated would require not only Obama, Gates and Mullen to certify the repeal but also the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. All four of the military service chiefs have said the survey should be completed prior to Congress acting on a repeal. Also, at least some of the chiefs oppose a repeal altogether.
Supporters of Don't Ask, Don't Tell say the military's unique environment makes the policy necessary.
"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," Benjamin Ratcliff, who is retired from the U.S. Army, said earlier this year during a Family Research Council webcast.
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?"