Obama backs 'don't ask, don't tell' compromise that could pave way for repeal

By Michael D. Shear and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; A01

President Obama has endorsed a "don't ask, don't tell" compromise between lawmakers and the Defense Department, the White House announced Monday, an agreement that may sidestep a key obstacle to repealing the military's policy banning gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces.

The compromise was finalized in meetings Monday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers will now, within days, vote on amendments that would repeal the Clinton-era policy, with a provision ensuring that any change would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1.

In a letter to lawmakers pushing for a legislative repeal, White House budget director Peter Orszag wrote Monday that the administration "supports the proposed amendment."

"Such an approach recognizes the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process through a thorough understanding of their concerns, insights and suggestions," he wrote.

While gay rights advocates hailed the move as a "dramatic breakthrough," it remained uncertain whether the deal would secure enough votes to pass both houses of Congress. Republicans have vowed to maintain "don't ask, don't tell," while conservative Democrats have said they would oppose a repeal unless military leaders made it clear that they approved of such a change.

Even if the compromise language passes, a legislative repeal would take effect only after Obama certified that the change would not harm the nation's military readiness.

In a statement, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said the announcement "paves the path to fulfill the President's call to end 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' this year and puts us one step closer to removing this stain from the laws of our nation."

The White House had initially hoped that Congress would wait until after the Pentagon study was completed before bringing up a repeal, but senior lawmakers made it clear that they intended to push ahead on the issue, with or without administration support. Now the controversial issue will return to the national conversation as fall reelection campaigns gear up.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is running for reelection and had previously supported a repeal of the law, said at a recent congressional hearing that the legislation is "imperfect but effective" and that "we should not be seeking to overturn."

Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), a member of the House GOP leadership, said Monday of a repeal: "The American people don't want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda. And House Republicans will stand on that principle."

While some Democrats, particularly in the House, wanted to wait for the Pentagon study to be finished, more-liberal Democrats were pushing for an immediate repeal. The compromise is designed to satisfy both concerns.

"We can live with this and we're asking, enthusiastically, members to support and vote for it," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), the lead sponsors

of repeal legislation, promised Monday night to pursue their goal quickly.

The White House letter clears the way for votes Thursday in the House on the overall spending bill, which Democrats expect will include Murphy's amendment. The same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee will vote on its version of the spending bill, and Lieberman will introduce the same repeal language.

"It is our firm belief that it is time to repeal this discriminatory policy that not only dishonors those who are willing to give their lives in service to their country but also prevents capable men and women with vital skills from serving in the armed forces," Lieberman and Murphy said in a statement.

If the compromise is approved, the 1993 policy could be removed from the nation's law books within weeks. That would satisfy one of the most significant promises Obama made to the gay community during his campaign.

Once in office, however, Obama moved slowly, often causing frustration among his gay supporters.

In February, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said they supported a repeal of the policy. Mullen said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

But Gates angered some activists by requesting time to assess how best to make the cultural shift within the ranks.

The effort to reverse the ban accelerated with Obama's one-sentence endorsement of a repeal in his January State of the Union address, sources close to the negotiations said. The next morning, advocates began a multimillion-dollar effort to convince six moderate members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

On Sunday, White House officials invited gay rights leaders to the White House for a Monday-morning meeting with Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and administration lawyers, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

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