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Senate panel and House vote to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell'

A measure to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military passes two key tests. A full Senate vote is next.

May 28, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — — A proposal to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military passed two critical tests Thursday, with the House of Representatives and an important Senate committee endorsing a compromise to end the divisive "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

In a late-night vote in the House, lawmakers endorsed an amendment that would repeal the ban, 234 to 194. In the largely party-line vote, 26 Democrats joined 168 Republicans in opposition. Five Republicans supported the repeal.

Earlier, in a closed session, the Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed the plan, 16-12. The measure still faces a vote in the full Senate.

The compromise between White House and congressional negotiators would not formally lift the ban on openly gay service members until the Pentagon completes a review, due Dec. 1, and President Obama and top Defense leaders certify that ending the 1993 prohibition would not affect military readiness.

Activists have pressed for congressional action, fearful that if lawmakers wait until the next legislative session to tackle the repeal, potential Republican gains in Congress this fall would make changing the law more difficult.

By adding the compromise to a defense authorization measure, Democratic leaders hope to avoid an attempt by opponents to block the repeal. To stop it, Senate Republicans would have to take the extreme step of filibustering the entire authorization measure, which sets overall parameters for military spending.

In Thursday's Senate committee vote, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R- Maine) joined the panel's Democrats in approving the proposal.

Although the compromise has the blessing of the White House and top Pentagon officials, some military leaders remain skeptical. The uniformed heads of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps all oppose legislation to repeal the ban until the Pentagon finishes its review.

"I believe that repealing the law before the completion of the review will be seen by the men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views before moving forward," wrote Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he would prefer that Congress wait, but that he accepts the compromise.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he supports the compromise, noting a provision that prevents the repeal from taking effect until the president and Pentagon leaders consent.

"The language in there right now preserves my prerogative — and, I believe, my responsibility — to give the best military advice," Mullen said Wednesday, according to an American Forces Press Service report. "That trigger is to certify whether we should move ahead with that change, even if the law were to repeal it."

Obama, Gates and Mullen all support ending the ban on gays serving openly. But military leaders, particularly Gates, favor implementing the repeal slowly, which the compromise language allows.

Some prominent Democrats in the House, including Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, oppose the compromise, citing concerns in the military.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R- Santa Clarita), the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the compromise would "breach the trust" of members of the military. He pledged to encourage colleagues to vote against final passage of the authorization bill.

"We owe our military personnel better," he said.

Advocates of lifting the ban praised the move to enact a repeal now.

"Lawmakers today stood on the right side of history," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. "This is a historic step to strengthen our armed forces and to restore honor and integrity to those who serve our country so selflessly."

But critics lashed out at Congress, arguing that lawmakers were using the military to advance a social agenda.

"The administration and the majority in Congress have pushed aside the advice of all four military service chiefs and, for the first time in our nation's history, voted to force the military to embrace homosexuality," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Originally, "don't ask, don't tell" was considered a reform when it replaced the military's practice of seeking out and ejecting gays and lesbians. Under the policy, as long as gays keep their sexual orientation secret, they are allowed to serve.

But more than 10,000 service members have been discharged for violating "don't ask, don't tell."

Obama lauded the House and Senate actions.

"I have long advocated that we repeal 'don't ask, don't tell,' he said in a statement. "This legislation will help make our armed forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity."

Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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