President Barack Obama is urging Congress to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, but Democratic allies and Republican opponents alike are criticizing his approach.
Obama's effort to eliminate the "don't ask, don't tell" practice faces resistance not just from Congress, but also from the Pentagon, where some top officials have been strident in their support for the Clinton-era policy.
Still, the Pentagon said Thursday it will work to carry out the president's wishes. Top military leaders are working on a plan for how repeal of the law would be implemented in the Defense Department, said Navy Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for Adm. Mike Mullen. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"The chairman and the (service) chiefs understand perfectly the president's intent, and they look forward to being able to provide their best military advice about the implementation of repeal," Kirby said of Obama's statement.
Furthermore, a White House official confirms that Gates' team and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were both consulted and both signed off on the language Obama used in his speech, CBS News chief political consultant, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reports.
Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were expected to address the topic in congressional budget hearings next week.
The number of dismissals dropped sharply after the 2001 terrorist attacks as forces were heavily deployed around the world, with half as many troops fired in 2008 as in 2001. Between 1997 and 2008, the Defense Department fired more than 10,500 service members for violating the policy.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama said Wednesday during his State of the Union address. "It's the right thing to do." (Watch the video)
The statement drew a standing ovation from Congress and from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but it fell short for gay activists.
Obama should have announced a suspension of dismissals, said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
"The time for broad statements is over. The time to get down to business is overdue. We wish we had heard him speak of concrete steps tonight," Carey said.
Richard Socarides, a Clinton adviser who has been a vocal critic of how Obama has handled gay constituents, called Obama's handling of the issue so far "an almost complete disaster."
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"In 1999, Bill Clinton became the first president ever to talk about gay rights in a State of the Union address. Eleven years later, not much has changed," Socarides said. Talking again about ending the policy "without a moratorium on the witch hunts and expulsions and without even a plan for future action just won't cut it," he said.
Obama's relationship with the gay community has been rocky since his election. Gays and lesbians objected to the invitation of evangelist Rev. Rick Warren to participate in Obama's inauguration because of Warren's support for repealing gay marriage in California.
As president, Obama hasn't taken any concrete steps urging the repeal of the policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation or act on it. Some former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged the policy is flawed, and Mullen signed off on a journal article that called for lifting the ban.
Yet a group that Mullen formed to advise him on the issue has urged a delay that could go into the middle of the next presidential election year.
"Now is not the time," the in-house advisers for Mullen wrote recently in a memorandum. "The importance of winning the wars we are in, along with the stress on the force, our body of knowledge and the number of unknowns, demand that we act with deliberation."
Mullen received the conflicting advice this month about whether to move quickly to lift the 1993 ban, and it is not clear what he will recommend to Obama. Although allowing gays to serve openly in the military was one of Obama's campaign promises, the issue was put on a back burner during his first year in office. Some liberal supporters and several congressional Democrats are pushing for action.
Asked Thursday whether the Army is ready for such a change, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey did not directly answer the question.
"What you heard last night was the beginning of a process," Casey said during an appearance at a Washington think tank.
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee urged Obama to listen to the uniforms.
"No action to change the law should be taken by the administration or by this Congress until we have a full and complete understanding of the reasons why the current law threatens or undermines readiness in any significant way," Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., wrote to Mullen and Gates.
Republican Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam and Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential race, said the policy has been successful.
"At a time when our armed forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy," said McCain, R-Ariz.