House panel votes to delay repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'
A House panel approved a defense bill early Thursday that would delay President Barack Obama's new policy allowing gays to serve openly in the military and limit the commander in chief's authority on slashing the nation's nuclear arsenal.
By a vote of 60-1, the House Armed Services Committee approved the broad, $553 billion defense blueprint that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of aircraft, ships and submarines, slightly increase health care fees for working-age retirees and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lone no vote was Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
The Republican-controlled panel challenged the Democratic president on scores of issues, from building an extra fighter jet engine to his decision-making on the fate of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a series of contentious votes, the panel added provisions that strike at repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The votes came even as Americans increasingly support an end to the 17-year-old ban, with polls finding three-quarters say openly gay men and women should be allowed to serve in the military.
The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., R-Calif., that would require all four service chiefs to certify that the change won't hurt troops' ability to fight. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.
"I want them to sign off on the repeal of `don't ask, don't tell,'" Hunter said of the military leaders, arguing that Obama never served in the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has never been in ground combat and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a political appointee. "I, and others in this room, have more combat experience than the folks who sign off on `don't ask, don't tell.'"
That drew a rebuke from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee.
"That's a dangerous thing to say, that they're not quite qualified to make military decisions," Smith said of Obama, Gates and Mullen. "The president decides to go to war, they decided to take out Osama bin Laden."
In fact, the service chiefs have told Congress they communicate frequently with Gates and Mullen, and their opinions on whether the policy would undercut readiness are carefully considered. Last month, in testifying to the House panel, the four service chiefs largely echoed Gates' assessment that repeal would have little impact on the military.
Obama signed the law reversing the ban in December. Final implementation would go into effect 60 days after the president and his senior defense advisers certify that lifting the ban wouldn't affect readiness. Military leaders say training should be completed by midsummer, setting the stage for certification.
That timetable - plus strong opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate - likely will render the House panel's provisions moot.
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