WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans led by a doubting John McCain dug in their heels yesterday against allowing gays to serve openly in the military, clashing with the Pentagon's top leaders and dimming Democrats' hopes to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" this year.
In tense exchanges with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, McCain and other Republicans dismissed a Pentagon study on gays as biased and said objections by combat troops were being ignored.
McCain blamed politics for pushing the matter forward during wartime, and he predicted soldiers and Marines would quit in droves if they had to serve next to gays open about their sexual orientation. He scoffed at testimony by Gates and Mullen, who said concerns among some combat troops could be addressed through time and training.
"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."
McCain, a four-term Republican and former Navy pilot who endured a harrowing ordeal as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, has taken a higher profile on socially divisive issues since losing the 2008 presidential race to Barack Obama. He has even differed with his wife, Cindy, who in a recent online video opposed the military policy and accused the government of treating gays like "second-class citizens."
McCain's opposition foreshadows this month's Senate debate on a bill to overturn the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law banning gays from serving openly in the armed forces.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised a Senate vote, but Republicans have blocked previous attempts on procedural grounds. Further hurting chances of repeal is an agreement among the Senate GOP not to vote on any bill this month before addressing tax cuts and government spending.