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military, sternly clashing with the Pentagon's top leaders and warning that soldiers would quit in droves if Congress repealed the "don't ask, don't tell" law.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 Marines, in particular, would abandon their service if they had to serve along with gays open about their sexual orientation.
"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 "secondclass 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.