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Lawmakers Question Move to Accelerate Vote on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Gates, Mullen on DADT

Mar. 25: Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen take questions on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' at a media briefing in Washington. (Reuters)

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are questioning the decision to move ahead on a vote to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, saying Congress and the administration should wait until the Pentagon completes its internal review this fall. 

A small group of congressional Democrats and the White House struck a compromise Monday to accelerate a vote on the issue, though the Pentagon's review is not due until December. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who gave a tepid endorsement of the new plan on Tuesday, supports the repeal but has urged Congress to hold off until the review is complete. 

By moving a vote up in the calendar, Democrats could avoid having to deal with the matter in the height of campaign season and also minimize the risk of Republican wins in the November election dashing the chance of repeal.  

But Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a former Judge Advocate General, told Fox News that he's concerned Congress is "jumping the gun" on the vote and warned that the move could ultimately jeopardize support.

Rooney opposes the change in the policy banning gays from serving openly in the military, but said he would nevertheless support the defense secretary. 

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also accused his colleagues of leap-frogging ahead of the Defense Department. 

"The Pentagon indicated that ideally, Secretary Gates continues to prefer that the department complete this review before Congress considers legislation. This is a reasonable and responsible request," he said in a written statement. 

Skelton opposes the policy change. But the accelerated timeline could end up turning off key lawmakers who would otherwise be willing to back the administration. 

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., a critical vote on the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that the repeal vote would be "premature" while the Pentagon is still "in the midst of its study." 

"I am keeping an open mind, but I do not support moving ahead until I am able to finish my review, the Pentagon completes its study and we can be assured that a new policy can be implemented without jeopardizing the mission of our military," he said. 

However, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., on Wednesday announced he would vote for the repeal, a day after Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced her support. Collins and Nelson also sit on the committee. 

The plan was struck among Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa. 

Even if Congress approves the repeal, under the agreement the Pentagon would still have time to finish its review before implementing any major changes. But the move could come with a political advantage. 

Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said the decision could serve the dual purpose of appeasing frustrated members of the base while shielding moderates from having to defend the issue closer to Election Day.

Gerstein said that the move puts pressure on the Pentagon to move toward repeal, though he noted that the president would probably still have leeway to adjust the plan if the review uncovers unforeseen complications. He rejected the notion that the compromise was some kind of ploy and said the president most of all is trying to follow through on a personal pledge to address the controversial policy. 

"He is trying to make good on a promise he made," Gerstein said. "It sends a message that the commander-in-chief wants to get this done and wants to get this done in the right way. Clearly they have a mandate." 

Gay advocacy groups lauded the decision to call a vote first. 

"We are on the brink of historic action to both strengthen our military and respect the service of lesbian and gay troops," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a written statement. "Without a repeal vote by Congress this year, the Pentagon's hands are tied." 

But the president is still facing pressure to move even more quickly. He was interrupted and heckled by a protester Tuesday night at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in San Francisco. The protester shouted at the president to "move faster" on the repeal -- Obama said he recognized him from another protest last month in Los Angeles. The gay rights group GetEQUAL afterward released a statement saying the protester is a co-founder of the organization and that it is focusing on "acts of civil disobedience" to push gay rights issues. 

The White House is backing the accelerated timetable. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said in a letter to Lieberman that while the White House would "ideally" like the Pentagon to first complete its review, the new proposal to vote on the repeal will "ensure that the implementation of the repeal is consistent with standards of military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention." 

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports repeal, though some generals have indicated opposition. 

Gates re-stated his position Tuesday that he'd prefer to conduct the review first. 

"Secretary Gates continues to believe that ideally the (Department of Defense) review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the don't ask, don't tell law. With Congress having indicated that is not possible the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement.