WASHINGTON — A House panel voted Wednesday to delay President Barack Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military despite Defense Secretary Robert Gates' argument that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" will have little impact on the armed forces.
In a series of contentious votes, the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee added provisions to the military budget for next year that strikes at the policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the 17-year-old ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.
The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., that would require all four service chiefs to certify that the change won't hurt readiness or undermine the military. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.
"I want them to sign off on the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Hunter said of the military leaders, arguing that Obama never served in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has never been in ground combat and Gates is a political appointee. "I, and others in this room, have more combat experience than the folks who sign off on 'don't ask, don't tell.'"
That drew a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee.
"That's a dangerous thing to say, that they're not quite qualified to make military decisions," Smith said of Obama, Gates and Mullen. "The president decides to go to war, they decided to take out Osama bin Laden."
In fact, the service chiefs have told Congress they communicate frequently with Gates and Mullen, and their opinions on whether the policy would hurt the troops' ability to fight are carefully considered. Last month in testifying, the four services chiefs largely echoed Gates' assessment that repeal would have little impact on the military.
Obama signed the law in December after a divided Congress passed the legislation. Final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban wouldn't affect readiness. Military leaders say the training should be completed by midsummer, setting the stage for certification.
That timetable – plus strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate – likely will render the House panel's provisions moot.
Still, the committee approved a provision by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that would prohibit the use of military facilities for same-sex marriage ceremonies and bar Defense Department employees from conducting such ceremonies. The vote was 38-23.
On Tuesday, the Navy abruptly reversed its decision that would have allowed chaplains to perform same-sex unions if the Pentagon certifies openly gay military service later this year.
The House panel Wednesday also approved an amendment by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of military benefits, regulations and policy. The vote was 39-22.
The committee worked toward early Thursday morning on a broad, $553 billion defense blueprint that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines, and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still pending in the marathon session were amendments on the pace of withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and the transfer of detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Earlier in the day, the panel voted to limit Obama's authority to reduce the nation's nuclear arsenal and implement a U.S.-Russia arms control treaty overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in December.
Over the objections of the Defense Department and Democrats, the committee approved a series of amendments directly related to the commander in chief's ability to make nuclear weapons reductions.
By a 35-26 vote, the panel approved an amendment that would prohibit money to take nuclear weapons out of operation unless the administration provides a report to Congress on how it plans to modernize the remaining weapons. The panel also adopted an amendment that says the president may not change the target list or move weapons out of Europe until he reports to Congress.
The measures passed by similar votes.
The New START treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010, would limit each country's strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from the current ceiling of 2,200. It also would establish a system for monitoring and verification. U.S. weapons inspections ended in 2009 with the expiration of a 1991 treaty.
START stands for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The Senate approved the treaty on a 71-26 vote, with 13 Republicans breaking with their party leaders.
The provisions added by the House panel to the $553 billion defense spending bill for next year are unlikely to survive in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Still, they elicited a fierce and lengthy debate in the committee.
Frustrated with Obama's consultation with Congress on Libya, the committee unanimously approved a measure seeking "any official document, record, memo, correspondence or other communication of the Department of Defense ... that refers or relates to any consultation with Congress" on Libya.
The bill takes a step toward reviving an extra engine for the next generation F-35 fighter plane despite objections from the administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the engine is not needed.
The Pentagon recently notified General Electric/Rolls Royce that it had terminated its contract and work was stopped a month ago, saving $1 million a day. The company said last week it would spend its own money to build the engine.
The bill would force the Pentagon to reopen competition for the engine if defense officials have to ask Congress for more money so Pratt & Whitney can build the chosen design. The provision would apply to Pentagon spending in the next budget year.
The committee went a step further in giving new life to the alternative engine, approving an amendment that would provide GE and Rolls Royce access to data on building the engine as the companies were using their own money. The amendment was approved on a 54-5 vote. Opponents of the extra engine vowed to renew their fight when the full House considers the defense bill, expected the week of May 23.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called the effort a "back-door way" of getting the engine back in.
Days after U.S. commandos killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he would offer an amendment to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Under his measure, the number of troops would be reduced by 90 percent by the end of 2013.
Facing strong opposition in the committee, Garamendi said his amendment would send a strong message to the administration as Obama considers how many troops to withdraw in July.
A growing number of war-weary lawmakers are calling for the United States to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, citing the cost of $10 billion a month and the death of bin Laden.
Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee have promised to challenge provisions of the bill that limit the administration's authority to transfer terrorist suspects from Guantanamo to foreign countries. Consistent with recent legislation, the bill bars transfer of detainees to facilities in the United States.
The legislation also would prohibit family members from visiting detainees at Guantanamo Bay by barring the Defense Department from spending any money on such visits. The provision was a pre-emptive move as the Pentagon is considering allowing family visits.
The bill would slightly raise health care fees for working-age military retirees in the next budget but cap future increases by linking them to cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. The rates have been unchanged for 11 years, and the defense bill accepts the administration call for a $2.50 per month increase for an individual and $5 for a family.