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

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 28, 2010; A02

The House voted Thursday night to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the controversial policy barring openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.

The measure -- an amendment to a defense policy bill -- passed 234 to 194, delivering a major victory to gay rights activists who have opposed the Pentagon policy since it was enacted in 1993. It also marks the most aggressive step by Democrats in implementing President Obama's campaign pledge to end the policy.

The legislation includes a provision ensuring that no change would take effect until the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops, due to Congress Dec. 1. It also requires that a policy change would not affect the military's ability to fight wars or recruit soldiers.

Democrats pushed ahead on the issue over the objections of some key military leaders, who said Congress should have waited to vote until the study is complete.

Twenty-six Democrats voted against the amendment, while five Republicans voted for it.

Earlier Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee also voted to change the policy, on a 16 to 12 vote. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) joined 11 Republicans in opposing the change, while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted with the Democrats. The full Senate is likely to consider the issue next month.

Obama hailed the votes, saying in a statement that the "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 votes came after fierce debates on both sides of the Capitol.

"We're saying, 'We're shoving this down your throat, we don't care,' " said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), arguing that Congress should have waited to hear from the military before taking action. He added, "The military is not a social experiment."

But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the few openly gay members of Congress, blasted defenders of "don't ask, don't tell" and said that such restrictions don't exist in other militaries.

"Those who tell me that the presence of gay and lesbian members of the military undermine the effectiveness of a fighting force and undermine unit cohesion must have never heard of Israel," he said.

The Senate committee debated the issue for more than an hour, in a closed-door session that members described as heated and vigorous. (Armed Services Committee hearings are often closed, so confidential defense matters can be discussed, and members did not decide to open the hearing for the "don't ask" debate.)

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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