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New push to drop 'Don't ask, don't tell'

WASHINGTON --Foes of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays hope for better results in their efforts to repeal it in the new Democratic-run Congress.

Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., on Wednesday revived legislation aimed at forcing the military to eliminate the policy preventing homosexual service members from being open about their orientation. Meehan said he expects the House Armed Services panel to hold hearings on the issue.

"I have worked in Congress to fight this policy because I believe that for more than a decade now it has undermined our national security interests," Meehan said.

He filed a similar measure that failed in the previous Congress, which was controlled by Republicans. That bill had more than 120 co-sponsors, including six Republicans. The new measure has 109 co-sponsors.

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards released a statement in support of Meehan's effort and called it "an issue of fundamental fairness."

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who appeared with Meehan at a Capitol Hill news conference, branded the military's policy on gays and lesbians "foolish and cruel."

Also attending was retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who lost his leg after stepping on a land mine early in the Iraq war. He was awarded a Purple Heart.

"Who would have ever guessed that the first American wounded was a gay Marine," Alva said.

Supporters of lifting the restriction on openly gay service members contend that the military -- under the strain of fighting two wars -- can ill-afford to exclude any qualified volunteers.

The current policy, based on legislation passed by Congress in 1993 after fierce debate, states that gays and lesbians may serve in the military only if they keep their sexual orientation private. Commanders may not ask, and gay service members may not tell. Over the years thousands have been dismissed under this policy.

The prospects for Meehan's bill are unclear. While many Democrats have criticized the policy as discriminatory, many Republicans have supported it. Congress may be reluctant to revisit such a divisive issue amid contentious debate over the Iraq war.