WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed support Friday for ending the policy that prevents openly gay men and women from serving in the military, after two days of Capitol Hill hearings on its repeal.

“Like our closest allies, the United States’ armed forces should welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country,” she said in a prepared statement.

In testimony Friday before Collins and other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. military leaders were split on whether to end “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The hearings followed the release of a Pentagon study recommending the controversial 17-year-old policy be repealed.

“I am impressed at the study the Pentagon did; it’s very lengthy, it reflects tens of thousands of interviews and surveys that were received, and it concludes that a solid majority of individuals serving today believe that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would not have a negative impact on combat readiness,” Collins said in an interview Friday after the hearing.

“That doesn’t surprise me, because many of our allies already allow open service and they have not seen any lessening in combat effectiveness or military readiness,” she said.

Of the committee members, Collins was the only Republican to vote in support of repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” That vote came in May, when the repeal was an amendment on a defense authorization bill.

That initiative eventually stalled in the Senate, when the bill failed to gain enough support to overcome a filibuster. Collins voted against proceeding with the bill, saying she could not support the defense bill without an open amendment process.

She took the same stance on Friday. “I have made it clear that if the bill (comes) to the floor with sufficient time allowed for debate and amendments, I would vote to proceed to the bill,” she said.

In testimony Friday, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, and Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard, all supported the Pentagon study’s recommendation for repeal.

Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. George Casey Jr., Army chief of staff, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, disagreed. They contested the study’s conclusion that repeal’s short-term risk to military effectiveness would be low.

They agreed that the policy could eventually be repealed, but said doing so while combat forces are deployed would be unwise.

Collins said she took seriously the concerns about shifting policy during wartime, but felt the repeal language addresses those concerns.

“The answer to that is found in the careful certification process that we put in the bill, that says it would not go into effect immediately, it would go into effect only after the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president certify that they are ready, essentially,” she said.

Groups pushing for repeal see Collins and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, as potential swing votes.

Snowe, who voted against proceeding with the earlier defense bill containing the repeal, said Thursday that she was monitoring the hearings and reviewing the Pentagon report, but still had concerns.

“I was noticing some of the high percentages in the combat units that had concerns (about repeal),” she said in an interview.

The House passed a repeal in May, with support from Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud of Maine. But it’s unclear if repeal will be considered again in the Senate before Congress adjourns this month.

This week, all 42 Senate Republicans co-signed a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, pledging to oppose voting on any issue before a decision on the extension of Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire Dec. 31, and agreement on government spending controls.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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