House votes to repeal Don't Ask
By JEN DIMASCIO | 5/27/10 7:53 PM EDT
Updated: 5/28/10 12:05 AM EDT
The push to end the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military cleared two major hurdles Thursday, with the House backing repeal by a 234-194 vote, while the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16-12 in favor of that body’s version of the change.
Both repeals, offered as amendments to a defense spending bill, would remove the policy only after the Pentagon completes a study due in December on the impact on the military of the change.
"I will not rest until the repeal of this discriminatory policy that hurts national security is signed into law,” Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Penn), the sponsor of the House amendment, said after the vote.
The White House and the Pentagon both approved the compromise in the amendments that allows Congress to act while granting the President, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the ultimate authority to implement repeal only when they are satisfied that the military’s readiness, recruiting, retention and morale would not be adversely impacted by it.
After the vote, Obama said he was pleased by the move toward repeal. “Our military is made up of the best and bravest men and women in our nation, and my greatest honor is leading them as Commander-in-Chief,” Obama said in a statement. “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.”
The debate leading up to the House vote was heated at times, as Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), leading the debate against repeal, drew House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to the floor to defend it.
McKeon, who pressed for additional time to debate the measure in floor action, said he strongly opposed the amendment.
“We do have a sacred obligation to those who serve,” McKeon said in a statement after the vote, adding that proceeding before the Pentagon’s review of implementing repeal was through was “[t]he equivalent of turning to members of military and their families and saying that your views don’t count.”
“Passing this amendment today respects the timeline of the Pentagon’s Implementation Study Group. Repeal would take place only after the study group completes its work in December 2010 and after the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense all certify that repeal will not hurt military readiness or unit cohesion,” Pelosi said during the debate. “No one in this body would jeopardize our national security.”
The debate in the Senate committee was also “lively,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) the panel’s chairman.
"Today’s action by the Senate Armed Services Committee is an important step to end this discriminatory policy,” he said.
The amendment was the most-watched part of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mark up of its annual defense bill, which also passed Thursday evening.
Aside from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the bill was soundly opposed by the Republicans on the committee and Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who explained in a statement that he opposed repealing the ban while the Pentagon is in the midst of reviewing how it should implement the change.
“I see no reason to pre-empt the process that our senior Defense Department leaders put into motion, and I am concerned that many members of the military would view such a move as disrespectful to the importance of their roles in this process,” Webb said.
Thursday's votes are just one step toward reversing the ban that has been in place since 1993.
The defense authorization bill typically passes with wide margins, but last year was an exception, as many Republicans voted against the bill because it included a hate-crimes provision.
The inclusion of don’t ask don’t tell could set up a similar dynamic this year.
And because the House defied President Obama's veto threat to hang onto funding for two Joint Strike Fighter engines, the situation is even stickier. With the engine money and don't ask don't tell, Obama is situated between a promise he's made to his most powerful Cabinet member and his liberal base of support on a landmark civil rights issue.
The Pentagon is aggressively pushing for a veto.
"We don't want nor need the extra engine, but this is just one step in a long journey and Secretary Gates is committed to staying engaged in this process the whole way, including if necessary ultimately recommending President Obama veto this legislation," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell after the vote.
So too is Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who supports don’t ask don’t tell repeal but who fought to strip funding for the General Electric engine but who said he was encouraged by a strong vote on the amendment and the fact that the Senate Armed Services Committee did not include funding for the engine in its bill.
“I fully expect the President to follow through with his threatened veto of the Defense Authorization Act if the F-35 Extra Engine Program is in the final legislation,” Larson said.
Gay-rights groups, which have been assured by the White House that repeal will work out in the end, immediately hailed the Senate panel’s vote as historic.
“Lawmakers today stood on the right side of history,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “This is a historic step to strengthen our armed forces and to restore honor and integrity to those who serve our country so selflessly.”
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said Congress is the right branch of government to reverse the policy.
“Chairman Carl Levin, Senator Joe Lieberman, and Rep. Patrick Murphy showed remarkable courage and steadfastness in the face of unprecedented and inappropriate last minute lobbying by the Pentagon service chiefs who seemed to have forgotten that they are not the policy makers here,” Sarvis said.