Senate panel, House vote to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell'
WASHINGTON — Both the House and a key Senate panel voted in favor of a delayed repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law Thursday night, a move even opponents conceded will likely chart the end of the controversial ban on openly gay troops.
Under the provision, attached to the annual defense authorization bill, the ban will be overturned 60 days after the president and key Pentagon leaders certify their yearlong review of the 17-year-old law.
That study is scheduled to report on Dec. 1, meaning the earliest a repeal could take place would be late January. Both the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates had pushed Congress to wait on legislation until the review was completed but gave lukewarm approval to the repeal measure earlier this week.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16-12 behind closed doors Thursday night to support the repeal, and the full Senate will take up the issue in coming weeks. The House approved the measure by a 234-194 vote after a lengthy floor debate on the defense budget bill, most of which focused on the role of homosexuals in the ranks.
House Democrats framed the issue as one of basic fairness. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., the sponsor of the amendment and a veteran who fought in Iraq, said during his time in the military his concern was always on his fellow troops’ skill and professionalism, never their sexual orientation.
“With our military fighting two wars, why on earth would we tell over 13,500 able-bodied Americans that their services are not needed?” he said, referencing the nearly 14,000 troops dismissed from the services since the 1993 law was adopted.
Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., compared the limits placed on homosexuals in the ranks to the integration of blacks into the military.
“This is not a social experiment any more than that was,” he said. “This bill is about our national security. ... This bill is about people who want to serve this country.”
But Republicans decried the move as social engineering driven by politics and rushed through the House months before the Pentagon’s review will be completed.
“I don’t know why we’re so afraid ... to listen to members of the armed forces,” said House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. “This would have Congress repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ even before the comprehensive review directed by the secretary of defense is completed.”
In an unusual move, House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo. — one of the Democrats’ key voices on military issues — joined with Republicans to oppose the repeal measure, calling it “a damaging message to men and women in uniform” because they will not have an opportunity to voice their concerns.
But gay rights advocates hailed the votes as a historic moment in their campaign for equality.
Alexander Nicholson, executive director of the pro-repeal Servicemembers United, called the votes “the beginning of the end for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ” Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the advocacy group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called the amendments a roadmap leading to open service for all homosexual troops.
Before the repeal amendment and the defense authorization bill can be signed into law by the president, they first must be approved by the full Senate and survive conference committee negotiations, a process expected to drag through the summer.
Still, House Republicans acknowledged that the amendment votes Thursday likely give supporters all they need to ensure repeal by early next year, regardless the outcome of the November elections. Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, earlier this week said repeal opponents likely would not be able to overcome the momentum of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” defeat this week.