WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to lead the Marine Corps told the Senate Tuesday that Congress should not repeal the law barring gays from serving openly in the military, dealing a blow to gay rights advocates just hours before a crucial test vote.
Senate Democrats have attached repeal of the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law to a bill authorizing $726 billion in military spending next year.
By Tuesday morning, the bill's prospects appeared dim. Advancing the measure could come down to a single vote, because Democrats need the support of at least one Republican to get the necessary 60 votes needed to end debate.
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, was seen as crucial to the bill's chances because she supports lifting the ban. But Collins has complained that Democrats are not giving her GOP colleagues a chance to be heard. [See which industries donate the most money to Collins.]
Amos told the Senate Armed Services Committee he worried that a shake up in personnel policy would serve as a "distraction" to Marines fighting in Afghanistan.
"My primary concern with proposed repeal is the potential disruption to cohesion that may be caused by significant change during a period of extended combat operations," he said in a written statement provided to the panel for his confirmation hearing.
During one exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Amos said he would implement any changes in the law on gay service made by Congress. He said the Marine Corps would rely on discipline and leadership to ensure order, but that he didn't envision a gag order on troops who disagreed with revoking the ban.
Some Republicans have suggested they fear troops who openly oppose gay service would be punished for speaking out.
"I don't see this as a racist issue," Amos said. "I see this as an anxious issue ... because we don't have the answers yet."
The law is already under siege. A federal judge in California recently ruled the ban on gays was unconstitutional, polls suggest a majority of Americans oppose it and Lady Gaga has challenged it in a YouTube video.
Repeal advocates say the law deprives the military of capable soldiers and violates civil rights.
But Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other prominent Republicans are fighting to keep the law in place, at least until the Pentagon completes a survey later this year on the repeal's likely effect on troops. GOP critics say lifting the ban at a time when troops are fighting two wars would undermine morale.
"I regret to see that the long-respected and revered Senate Armed Services Committee has evolved into a forum for a social agenda of the liberal left of the Senate," McCain said last week on the Senate floor.
An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law since its inception in 1993. Although most dismissals have resulted from gay service members outing themselves, gay rights' groups say the ban has been used by vindictive co-workers to drum out troops who never made their sexuality an issue.
Top defense leaders, including Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, have said they support a repeal but want to move slowly to ensure that the changes won't harm troop morale.
Gates has asked Congress not to act until the military finishes a study, due Dec. 1, on how to lift the ban without causing problems.
He also has said he could live with the proposed legislation because it would postpone implementation until 60 days after the Pentagon completes its review and the president certifies that repeal won't hurt morale, recruiting or retention.
The provision is included in a broader defense policy bill that authorizes $726 billion in military spending for next year, including $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 1.4 percent pay raise for the troops.
By reviving the issue just before the midterm Congressional elections, Democrats are trying to score points with their political base and portray Republicans as obstructionists willing to shoot down a bill that includes the pay raises.