WASHINGTON – The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that allowing gays to serve openly in the military is a settled issue that he won't try to reverse even if Mitt Romney wins the presidency in November and the GOP captures the Senate.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California said his focus is on restoring money for the military after the latest round of defense cuts — a planned reduction of $487 billion over 10 years that could nearly double if Congress fails to avert automatic, across-the-board cuts that begin in January. Pressed on the divisive issue of gay rights that roiled Congress two years ago, McKeon said he wouldn't revisit it.
"We fought that fight," McKeon told defense reporters at an hourlong breakfast interview. He said his goal is to "get the things that our war-fighters need."
The committee chairman said other GOP lawmakers might try to reinstate the "don't ask, don't tell policy" that was in effect for nearly two decades. "That's not something that I would personally bring up," he said.
He recalled that in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House after 40 years, there were high expectations for ambitious changes. "They expected us to pull off miracles. That's not how things work. I'd rather focus on money for defense," McKeon said.
Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed legislation in December 2010 repealing the policy. The change took effect last year, and military leaders have concluded that it has not affected morale or readiness. In fact, this month, the Pentagon is marking gay pride month with an official salute.
Addressing a range of issues from the automatic cuts to intelligence leaks, McKeon recommended that Congress look for a short-term solution to delay the automatic cuts and do it now rather than wait for a lame-duck congressional session after the election. He said the November elections have the potential to be the nastiest ever, especially with heavy spending by outside political groups, and that it was ridiculous to expect all sides — the president, Republicans and Democrats — to "come together in a 'Kumbaya' moment."
As he said earlier this year, McKeon is willing to consider increasing revenue through taxes to avert the defense cuts, making him one of few Republicans open to that possibility. "I'm willing to look at anything," he said.
Congress is scrambling to come up with a way to avoid automatic, $1.2 trillion cuts in domestic and military programs over a decade. The failure of a bipartisan congressional supercommittee last year to come up with a deficit-cutting plan will trigger the cuts, scheduled to begin Jan. 2.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned about the meat ax approach of the automatic cuts, arguing it would hollow out the force. The $492 billion, decade-long reduction would come on top of the $487 billion cut over 10 years that President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer.
McKeon was one of those Republicans. He said Thursday it was a mistake, putting lawmakers in a difficult position.
Separately, the Senate voted for a measure calling on the Pentagon to release a report by Aug. 15 on the impact of the automatic cuts. The measure, backed by voice vote, also calls on the White House budget office to release a report within 30 days and the president to produce a report within 60 days on the impact on defense and domestic spending. The measure was added to the farm bill that cleared the Senate Thursday.
Calling the automatic cuts a "a terrible way to cut spending," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said that while Congress tries to come up with a deal to avert the cuts, "we should know exactly how the administration would enact sequestration if we don't get a deal."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also backed the measure.
The recent leaks of classified information, including reports of a cyberwar against Iran and U.S. counterterrorism actions, has prompted an outcry in Congress, especially from Republicans who argue that they were intentional to enhance Obama's national security reputation in an election year.
McKeon said his committee, like the one on the Senate side, will hold a hearing on the issue. At the same time, he said he had no quarrel with some of the steps taken by the Democratic administration.
"Frankly, I'm glad to hear we're doing some of these things," he said.