MELBOURNE, Australia — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Congress should act quickly, before new members take their seats, to repeal the military's ban on gays serving openly in the military.
He, however, did not sound optimistic that the current Congress would use a brief postelection session to get rid of the law known as "don't ask, don't tell."
"I would like to see the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" but I'm not sure what the prospects for that are," Gates said Saturday, as he traveled to defense and diplomatic meetings in Australia.
Unless the lame-duck Congress acts, the repeal effort is considered dead for now.
The current, Democratic-controlled Congress has not acted to lift the ban, which President Barack Obama promised to eliminate. In his postelection news conference Wednesday, Obama said there would be time to repeal the ban in December or early January, after the military completes a study of the effects of repeal on the front lines and at home.
With Republicans taking control of the House in January, and with larger margins in the Senate, supporters of lifting the ban predict it will be much more difficult.
Gates also urged the Senate to ratify a stalled arms control treaty with Russia before the end of the current legislative session in January.
The defense chief said the huge midterm gains for Republicans will not set back Obama's strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Obama wants to begin pulling U.S. forces home next summer, so long as security conditions allow it.
Many Republicans oppose the withdrawal plan, saying it is driven by politics and encourages the Taliban to wait out U.S. forces.
"Partly I think things will depend on our assessment next spring and early summer of how we're doing," Gates said. "I think that will have the biggest impact on the president's decision in terms of the pacing."
The House Armed Services Committee plans hearings about the war this spring, incoming committee chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon said last week. Republicans generally support Obama's war plan, which combines a troop buildup with counterinsurgency and couunterterror tactics. Their only real complaint has been the announcement that withdrawal would begin in July 2011.
McKeon plans to summon commanding Gen. David Petraeus, who has finessed his early unease with the withdrawal plan. Petraeus has said he will give Obama his straight advice about whether a withdrawal is advisable, and military officials say they expect him to recommend modest pullbacks from areas considered relatively safe.
Such hearings would raise the pressure on Obama if he is planning a large withdrawal or if the spring brings erosion of the small military gains U.S. and NATO forces have made in recent months.
"We've talked all along about the withdrawals in July being conditions-based, in terms of the numbers," that would leave, Gates said. "I think that continues to be the position. It'll be based more on that than on domestic politics."