WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he would seek the repeal of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that permits gays to serve in uniform as long as they hide their sexual orientation.
Obama, smarting from a political setback in Massachusetts that saw Democrats lose a Senate seat, sought to make good on a campaign promise that gay rights activists wanted in his first year in office.
In his first State of the Union speech and in the midst of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama called for ending the Pentagon policy that began in the early 1990s.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," he said.
The policy bans openly gay people from serving in the military but prohibits military officials from initiating inquiries on sexual orientation when soldiers are abiding by the rules.
Obama's pledge drew fire from Senator John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I believe it would be a mistake to repeal the policy," McCain said. "This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels."
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay rights group, welcomed Obama's move.
"Our country simply cannot afford this discriminatory law that hurts military readiness by denying patriotic men and women the opportunity to serve," said the group's president, Joe Solmonese.
Christopher Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, which has fought for the policy's repeal, said more presidential pressure will be needed.
"The path to repeal will require both a command decision by the president and a clear timeline which follows," Neff said.
The policy was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, as a compromise after the military objected to his calls to open its doors to gays.
The policy stopped the government from asking recruits or anyone in the military if they were homosexual, provided they did not disclose their sexual orientation.
Critics charge that having gays openly serve in the military would undermine morale and discipline. Others reject such complaints and call the current policy unfair and unwise.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Steve Holland; Editing by John O'Callaghan)