WASHINGTON — A doubting John McCain led Republican opposition Thursday to letting gays serve openly in the military, sternly clashing with the Pentagon's top leaders and warning that troops would quit in droves if Congress repealed the "don't ask, don't tell" law.
In tense exchanges with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McCain and other Republicans dismissed a Pentagon study on gays as biased and said objections by combat troops were being ignored.
Gates and Mullen defended the study, but McCain blamed politics for pushing the matter forward during wartime. He predicted that Marines and soldiers assigned combat duties, in particular, would abandon their service if they had to serve along with gays open about their sexual orientation.
McCain, R-Ariz., also said the study was flawed because it asked troops what impact repeal would have, instead of whether they wanted the law repealed at all. The study found that two-thirds of troops predicted few problems, but those who did were mostly assigned to combat roles.
"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."
Gates shot back that asking troops if they want to serve alongside gays would amount to issuing a referendum on a policy decision that should be made by Congress or the courts. The goal of the study, he said, was to find out it if it could be done without hurting the military's ability to fight.
"Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours? You going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That's not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked in our entire history," Gates said.
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."
Frowning and lecturing Gates and other top officials who tried to defend the Obama administration's effort to repeal the gay ban, McCain scoffed at their contention that the concerns of combat troops could be addressed through time and training.
His 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.
Throughout Thursday's hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain was openly dismissive of Gates and Mullen, appearing angry and even suggesting at one point that the two leaders had failed personally because their 10-month study didn't directly ask troops whether they supported the law.
"Every great leader I've ever known always consulted subordinates for their views, no matter what the issue," McCain said.
Mullen took particular exception to suggestions by McCain made prior to Thursday's hearing that the Joint Chiefs chairman's opinion was less valuable because he wasn't directly commanding troops from his perch at the Pentagon.
"You do not have to agree with me on this issue," Mullen said. "But don't think for one moment that I haven't carefully considered the impact of the advice I give on those who will have to live with the decisions that advice informs."
Gates and Mullen on Thursday asked Congress to act as soon as possible to pre-empt further intervention from federal courts.
Earlier this fall, a federal judge in California shook the Pentagon's cautious effort by ordering the department to stop enforcing the ban. For eight days, the ban was lifted, creating confusion and uncertainty among troops until an appeals court granted a stay and reasserted the policy.
"Repeal of the law will not prove unacceptable risk to military readiness," Mullen told the Senate panel on Thursday. "Unit cohesion will not suffer if our units are well-led. And families will not encourage their loved ones to leave the service in droves."
Each of the panel's Republicans, except repeal supporter Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, agreed with McCain that the study was flawed. Several said the 28 percent response rate was too small to be indicative of the entire force. Gen. Carter Ham, who co-chaired the study, said he was comfortable that troops who did respond were representative.
Republicans also noted that combat troops were the most resistant to the change, and said retention of valuable soldiers and Marines would suffer. Nearly 60 percent of those in Marine Corps and Army combat units, such as infantry and special operations, said in the survey they thought repealing the law would hurt their units' ability to fight.
Gates and Mullen noted that 92 percent of troops in the survey who believed they had served with a gay person said they never saw an impact on their units' morale or effectiveness.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.