Lawmakers divided on 'don't ask, don't tell' as votes near

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; A03

Key votes pending in Congress this week on whether to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law that prohibits openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military remain too close to call, advocates on both sides say.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to vote by the end of the week on an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would end "don't ask, don't tell," which Congress passed in 1993. Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) favors a repeal, but it is unclear whether he has enough votes, with six senators on the panel considered undecided, legislative sources said.

The House is expected to vote on a similar measure this week, based on a repeal proposal sponsored by Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran. The House Armed Services Committee declined to act on Murphy's bill in passing its version of the defense spending measure last week, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has told gay advocacy groups that she will allow a floor vote if there is enough support in favor of a repeal.

"This is our 'all hands on deck' moment," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which represents gays who have been drummed out of the armed forces. "For repeal to succeed, it is critical that all proponents for full repeal weigh in now, including the White House. We are only a few days away from this historic vote."

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called on Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have subsequently told Congress that they support allowing gays to serve openly, raising hopes among advocates who have fought against the law for years.

Since then, however, momentum has stalled, with Congress slow to act amid conflicting signals from the White House on how to proceed.

In his January speech, Obama said he would work with Congress to repeal the law "this year." But the White House has also lent support to an April 30 letter from Gates and Mullen to Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, urging lawmakers not to lift the ban until after the Defense Department has finished a study on how to integrate gays in the military. That study is scheduled to be completed by December.

"They're not pushing now," said J. Alexander Nicholson III, executive director of Servicemembers United, an association of gay active-duty troops and veterans. "Every shred of evidence we have about what the White House wants is that they are going to wait until next year."

Supporters of ending "don't ask, don't tell" say they are lining up behind a measure that would repeal the law but not take effect until late next year, after the military finishes its integration study. Some lawmakers had called for a moratorium on the expulsion of gay service members until then, but that effort has fizzled, Nicholson said.

He said advocates fear that their window of opportunity to change the law is closing fast; Republicans, many of whom favor keeping "don't ask, don't tell," are hoping to make substantial gains in November's congressional elections.

"We absolutely do think that we are running a very big risk if we don't get it done in this Congress," Nicholson said. "The environment may not be suitable to passing it next year."

In the meantime, those on the other side of the debate are pressing Congress to maintain the status quo. "We feel strongly that the current policy has served the U.S. military well for 17 years and it would not be wise to make a major cultural change in the middle of two wars," Clarence E. Hill, national commander of the American Legion, wrote in letters Wednesday to Pelosi and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, another group opposed to changing the law, said the April 30 letter from Gates and Mullen had persuaded some fence-sitting lawmakers to hold off. "There are many pro-military Democrats who do not support this agenda," she said of the repeal effort.

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