Congress has taken two big steps toward ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
In quick succession on Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the full House of Representatives approved measures to repeal the 1993 law that allows gay people to serve in the armed services only if they hide their sexual orientation.
The votes were a victory for US President Barack Obama, who has actively supported ending the policy, and for gay rights groups who have made repealing the ban their top legislative priority this year.
“Lawmakers today stood on the right side of history,” said Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, a major gay rights organization.
With passage, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “We honor the values of our nation and we close the door on a fundamental unfairness.”
The drive to end the ban still has a long way to go. The 234-194 House vote was an amendment to a defense spending bill that was to come up for a final vote yesterday. While the spending bill, which approves more than US$700 billion in funds for military operations, enjoys wide support, some lawmakers vowed to vote against it if the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal was included.
“It jeopardizes passage of the entire bill,” said Representative Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat who opposed it.
The full Senate is expected to take up the defense bill next month, and Republicans are threatening a filibuster if the change in policy toward gays remains in the legislation.
“I think it’s really going to be very harmful to the morale and effectiveness of our military,” said Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a leading opponent of the repeal.
In a statement after the House vote, Obama hailed Thursday’s congressional action as “important bipartisan steps toward repeal.”
“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,” Obama said.
The Armed Services vote on the measure was 16-12, with one Republican, Susan Collins, voting for it and one Democrat, Jim Webb, opposing it.
In the House, Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly against the amendment, cited the letters of four military service chiefs urging Congress to hold off on legislation until the military gains a full assessment of the effects the repeal might have on military life and readiness.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while voicing support for the repeal, also has said he would prefer that Congress wait until the Pentagon conducts a study, due to be finished in December, on the impact of the policy change.
The House and Senate amendments stipulate that the repeal would not become law until after the study is completed and until the president, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that it will not have negative effects on the military’s fighting ability.