WASHINGTON — House conservatives won a symbolic victory against the impending “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal late Wednesday night, but the result is unlikely to change plans to let gays serve openly in the military.
The House Armed Services Committee passed three separate measures designed to slow or blunt the impact of the repeal as part of the annual defense authorization bill. None of the items can go into law until the full House and the Senate approve them, and the authorization bill isn’t typically finalized before late September. Defense Department officials have hinted they’ll certify the repeal before then, effectively nullifying the effort to keep “don’t ask, don’t tell” alive.
Republicans on the committee said the debate is unlikely to stop repeal of the controversial 18-year-old law, which allows military to dismiss troops who openly admit to being gay.
But they said the debate was important to better manage an unpopular change forced upon the military in the waning days of last-year’s lame-duck session, and to clarify the federal Defense of Marriage Act against possible gay marriages on military bases.
Democrats on the committee called the moves blatant pandering.
“For some voters out there, this is red meat,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia. “Gays in the military. Gay marriage. Next we will have gay abortion. They are trying to find some way of pushing the right buttons with a certain constituency, and I think that’s something we need to get past.”
The first of the three amendments would require the four service chiefs to certify that repealing the controversial 18-year-old ban on openly gay troops will not harm military readiness. Under the repeal measure passed last year, only President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen must certify those conditions before the repeal can be finalized.
Pentagon leaders — including the individual service chiefs — have opposed similar efforts in the past.
But amendment sponsor Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., said the extra input is needed because combat troops were not adequately consulted before the repeal, and “I and others in this room have more combat experience than the ones who will sign off on [repeal].”
Hunter, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, drew criticism for that remark, but the measure passed largely along party lines.
Hunter publicly admitted that his effort is unlikely to save the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, which he supports, and said his goal wasn’t to “repeat the debates of the past.” But several colleagues used the opportunity to rail against the change, saying that it compromises military readiness and morale.
“There’s a lot of talk that the American people want this, but I’ve yet to find one American, one member of the Army National Guard, Air National Guard, Marine Corps, airmen and sailors I’ve met who support repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss. “This was a foregone conclusion. … It was all political.”
Gay rights groups blasted those complaints. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network executive director Aubrey Sarvis called the amendments “a partisan political attempt” to derail repeal. Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, called Hunter’s measure “a shameful and embarrassing waste of time.”
Two other amendments focused on the Defense of Marriage Act, stating that military bases not be used in same-sex marriages and personnel cannot officiate such ceremonies, in light of recent Navy guidance suggesting that such weddings could take place post-repeal.
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., sponsor of one amendment, said he was prompted to offer the measure because of the confusion surrounding the pending repeal, which has left military leaders wondering what behavior will be allowed.
Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the conservative Family Research Council, praised the measure as a needed statement by Congress to oppose same-sex marriage. Even before the vote, Navy officials said they would review their policy.
“I think all of this highlights the dissatisfaction with the way the repeal was rushed through last year,” he said. “This is an opportunity to show there is opposition to this repeal within the military.”
Still, McClusky admits that completely stopping the repeal is unlikely. J.D. Smith, a gay active-duty military officer who works as co-director of OutServe, said troops he has spoken with don’t take the House amendments as a real threat to the process. Smith goes by a pseudonym.
“Essentially, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is quickly dying with troops on the ground, and training went better than we all thought,” Smith said. “Whether or not Congress slows down [the repeal], the troops aren’t going that route.”