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House votes to end 'don't ask, don't tell' policy

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. The House passed a measure repealing the law. The Senate will debate the measure next month.

Supporters of the change described it as a historic achievement.

"This is the end of a shameful ban on open service by lesbian and gay troops that has weakened our national security," said Joe Solmonese, the president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.

The legislation represents a compromise between the administration and gay rights groups, which have long complained that the Pentagon's policy effectively allows one of the nation's most powerful institutions to discriminate. More than 13,000 people in the armed forces have left the military because of "don't ask, don't tell" since 1993, including more than 400 last year.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have endorsed the policy change while emphasizing that the Pentagon first needs to examine its impact on the troops. Mullen has said he supports repeal, calling it "the right thing to do" in testimony before Congress in February.

But the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have said Congress should wait for the Pentagon to finish its study.

"Repealing the law before the completion of the review will be seen by the men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views before moving forward," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, wrote in a letter.

The push from Democrats comes as public opinion on the issue has changed dramatically. In 1993, 44 percent of Americans supported allowing people who are openly gay to serve in the military. Today, 75 percent support that idea, according to a recent Washington Post poll.

Any change is unlikely to happen before next year. Pentagon officials have said it could take several months after completing the study until they are prepared to fully integrate gays into the armed forces as they consider such issues as whether gay and heterosexual troops could be required to share housing and whether the military would be required to extend benefits to same-sex partners.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock, research editor Alice Crites and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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