WASHINGTON - Legislators this week will press the military's top uniformed officers for the first time on whether they think repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces makes sense or would be too disruptive.
The testimony from each of the service chiefs on Capitol Hill will be crucial to the debate in Congress on whether to repeal the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law.
President Barack Obama says the policy unfairly punishes patriots who want to serve their country. Defence Secretary Robert Gates agrees and has begun a yearlong study on how to mitigate the impact of lifting the ban.
Providing much-needed political cover is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who has said he thinks the law unfairly forces gay troops to compromise their integrity by lying about who they are.
But legislators, who are divided on whether to end the ban, say they want to hear from the service chiefs. They are the ones who would be in charge of putting any changes in place and responding to any fallout.
"The armed forces have always placed military effectiveness above individual needs," said Rep. Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi who says he is unconvinced that the ban should be lifted.
"This is one of the core concepts that has made the U.S. military one of the most effective combat forces in history," he said.
While Mullen says he believes the ban should be lifted, he has said he can't speak for the service chiefs other than to say they support Gates' yearlong assessment.
The service chiefs are scheduled to testify separately throughout the week, with the army's Gen. George Casey and the Air Force's Gen. Norton Schwartz going first on Tuesday. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, who is said to oppose changes to the policy, will testify on Wednesday.
"We believe that any implementation plan for a policy permitting gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces must be carefully derived, sufficiently thorough and thoughtfully executed," Mullen told a Senate panel last month.
The testimony of the service chiefs is considered so critical to the debate that House lawmakers have asked that they appear twice. In addition to this week's testimony, which is supposed to focus primarily on the 2011 budget, the House Armed Services Committee wants the chiefs to return for a separate hearing dedicated solely to the military's policy on gays.
"We strongly urge that no impediments be placed or erected to forestall that appearance or inhibit their testimony," a group of Republicans, led by Rep. Buck McKeon of California, wrote Gates and Mullen in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. Similar letters were sent to each of the service chiefs.
"Such impediments, if imposed, would convey to this Congress and to America that the Administration is not interested in a full airing of all viewpoints on this issue," the lawmakers said.
According to a February Pew poll conducted after Mullen's testimony, only 27 per cent of Americans said they oppose allowing gays to serve openly.
Reversing the military's policy on gays, which is based on a 1993 law and would require an act of Congress, is seen by most as the biggest upheaval to the military's personnel policies since the 1948 executive order by President Harry S. Truman on racial integration.
Homosexuality has never been openly tolerated in the American military, and the 1993 policy was intended to be a compromise that let gay men and women serve so long as they stayed silent about their sexuality. Clinton had wanted to repeal the ban entirely, but the military and many in Congress argued that doing so would dangerously disrupt order.
Senior defence and military officials who now advocate changing the policy say they want to move slowly. Leaders want time to ensure the changes aren't too disruptive and that troops have time to get used to the idea.
Democrats say that they want to repeal the ban as soon as possible, but it is unclear whether they have the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate. Also, many lawmakers would prefer to wait until after the national election in November to avoid the debate dominating their campaigns.
While most Republicans say they oppose lifting the ban, some say they would support a repeal if the service chiefs recommend it. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, said as much as in 2006, although he said more recently that the law shouldn't change at a time of two wars.
"The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it," McCain said in October 2006.
Gates, Mullen and other senior U.S. officials, including former Vice-President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have cited a cultural shift in the 17 years since Congress passed the ban that has changed the debate.
Powell, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993 advocated for "don't ask, don't tell," said this month that for the past two years he has favoured reviewing the current ban.
"Attitudes and circumstances have changed," he said.