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House votes to end ‘don’t ask’ ban on gays

Senate panel also backs law’s repeal

By Jim Abrams
Associated Press / May 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The House delivered a victory last night to gay rights groups by approving a proposal to repeal the law that bars gays and lesbians from serving in the military if they disclose their sexual orientation.

The 234-to-194 vote to overturn the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy reflected a view among many in Congress that America is ready for a military in which gay people and straight people can stand side by side in the trenches.

“I know that our military draws its strength on the integrity of our unified force, and current law challenges this integrity by creating two realities within the ranks,’’ said Representative Susan Davis, Democrat of California.

Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly against the repeal, cited statements by some military leaders that they need more time to study how a change in the law could affect the lives and readiness of service members.

The House vote came just hours after the Senate Armed Services Committee took the same course and voted, 16 to 12, in favor of repealing the 1993 law.

As expected, Senator Scott Brown voted against the amendment in the committee session yesterday. The Massachusetts Republican earlier this week said he believes a vote on repeal should be put off until the Pentagon completes its study and formulates a plan for implementing openly gay service.

In both the House and Senate, the measure was offered as an amendment to a defense spending bill. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill next week. Some Republicans have threatened to filibuster the bill because of the “don’t ask’’ amendment, but many analysts believe holding up essential spending for US troops could be politically dangerous.

President Obama and leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, have actively supported the repeal so that gays could serve in the military without fear of being exposed and discharged.

“This is the beginning of the end of a shameful ban on open service by lesbian and gay troops that has weakened our national security,’’ Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization, said after the Senate panel’s vote.

During an all-day House debate on the bill approving more than $700 billion in spending for defense programs, Republicans repeated statements by military service chiefs that Congress should not act before the Pentagon completes a study on the impact of a repeal.

Congress going first “is the equivalent to turning to our men and women in uniform and their families and saying, ‘Your opinion, your view, do not count,’ ’’ said Representative Howard “Buck’’ McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

Democratic supporters stressed that the amendment is written so that the repeal would not go into effect until after the Pentagon publishes in December the results of a survey on how service members and their families view the change, and until the president, the defense secretary, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the repeal will not affect the military’s ability to fight.

The chief sponsor of the amendment, Representative Patrick Murphy, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who served in the Iraq war, said that when he was in Baghdad “my teams did not care whether a fellow soldier was straight or gay if they could fire their assault rifle or run a convoy down ambush alley and do their job so everyone would come home safely.’’

The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said that of the 13,500 members of the military who have been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ more than 1,000 filled critical occupations, such as engineers and interpreters.

He compared the arguments of the opposition to speeches in Congress in 1948, when lawmakers warned that racially integrating the troops would undermine morale in the military.

The drive to repeal the ban still faces a tough road ahead in the full Senate, where Republicans are likely to filibuster it.

“I think it’s really going to be very harmful to the morale and effectiveness of our military,’’ said Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a leading opponent of the repeal.

The Senate probably will take up the bill next month.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he supports repeal but would prefer that Congress wait for the December report.

Under “don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ military leaders don’t investigate the sexual orientation of a service member as long as the person does not disclose that he or she is gay or has a same-sex relationship. Both conditions currently are grounds for dismissal.

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