Senate poised for close vote on repealing 'don't ask, don't tell' law

Pop star 'Lady Gaga' visited Portland, Maine, on Monday on the eve of a key Senate vote to urge the state's two U.S. senators to help repeal the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gays.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 8:14 PM

The Senate is planning to vote Tuesday on whether to end debate on a $725.7 billion annual defense policy bill, a measure that includes a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law, which bans gays from serving openly in the armed forces.

The vote is expected to be close but is almost certain to pass if Democrats can break a Republican-led filibuster. The House passed a similar measure in May, and a House-Senate compromise version is expected to pass both chambers after the November midterm elections.

But even if Tuesday's vote succeeds, Senate aides said Republicans may introduce an amendment this week that would remove the repeal from the defense bill.

President Obama voiced support for repealing "don't ask" during his 2008 campaign and has since said he would sign the defense bill after certifying an ongoing Pentagon study of how a repeal might affect troop readiness and morale.

Election-year pressures and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's decision to call a vote before the end of the Pentagon review have made it difficult to secure the 60 votes needed to end the filibuster, according to Senate aides and advocates for and against repeal. Attention is focused on a handful of moderate senators, including Susan Collins (R-Maine), George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and James Webb (D-Va.).

Backers of repeal had hoped to sway Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), but she signaled Monday that she will not support the measure.

Other Republicans have blasted Reid's plans to introduce an amendment to the bill that would legalize the status of illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), among others, have said the move is a desperate effort by Reid (D-Nev.) to shore up Latino support as he faces a tough reelection fight.

"I understand that it's not that far between now and elections, but to use a bill that has to do with defending our national security interest when we're in two wars to pursue a social agenda and a legislative agenda to galvanize voting blocs I think is reprehensible," McCain said.

But Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said Monday that other senators, including McCain, have tried in the past to introduce amendments unrelated to military policy.

Repeal supporters called the vote set for Tuesday a critical moment in the gay rights movement.

"This is the most important vote in the history of the gay civil rights movement," said Christopher Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California at Santa Barbara that is dedicated to repealing the ban.

"The simple fact is, after the election there would be reluctance to take on this issue," Neff said, referring to a possible Republican takeover of Congress. "We've lined up the stars. This needs to happen now."

Opponents said the possible repeal, as well as language in the bill that would end a ban on abortions at military bases, are designed mainly to appease Democratic-leaning voters before the November elections.

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, who leads a coalition of African American religious leaders who oppose repealing "don't ask," warned that ending the ban would impose "the most radical form of social experiments" on troops.

"Introducing sexual tension and conduct into our barracks will be a distraction from the very business of the military, and that is protecting us from our enemies," Jackson said.

A repeal could also force military chaplains to resign or keep silent about their opposition, he said.

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