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New bill advances on 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; A02

House lawmakers on Wednesday again approved a bill to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law, delivering renewed momentum to the years-long campaign to end the ban on gays in the military ahead of a possible Senate vote next week.

The House voted 250 to 175 to repeal the 17-year-old law; 15 Republicans voted for the bill, and 15 Democrats voted against it.

The 75-vote margin was wider than a similar House vote in May, when language ending the ban was part of the annual defense authorization bill. That bill failed a procedural vote in the Senate last week, requiring another vote in the House on a separate measure to end to the gay ban.

President Obama heralded the vote, saying in a statement that ending current military policy "is not only the right thing to do, it will also give our military the clarity and certainty it deserves. We must ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally by their country."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday night that he wants to bring up the bill, but warned, "We are very quickly running out of days in this Congress. The time for week-long negotiations on amendments and requests for days of debate is over. Republican senators who favor repealing this discriminatory policy need to join with us now."

The bill's Senate sponsors, Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), also called for a quick vote. "We are out of excuses," they said Wednesday in a statement.

Efforts to end "don't ask, don't tell" picked up a significant backer Wednesday in Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). She said she would vote to repeal the law, joining Collins and Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) as Republicans who have said they would do so - enough, when combined with the 57 Democrats who supported last week's failed attempt, to overcome any attempt by opponents at a filibuster.

Though Lieberman and Collins introduced the bill first, its House co-sponsors, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), pushed their colleagues to vote first so the Senate could consider it later as a privileged resolution, which requires fewer days of debate.

"It's time to end a policy of official discrimination that has cost America the service of some 13,500 men and women who wore our uniform with honor," Hoyer said Wednesday. "It's time to stop throwing away their service, their willingness to die for our country, because of who they are."

"The ball is now in the Senate's court, and I urge our senators of both parties to pass this bill and finally dismantle 'don't ask, don't tell,' once and for all," Murphy said.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), who is slated to chair the House Armed Services Committee in the next Congress, blasted Democrats for calling for a vote on "don't ask, don't tell" before reconsidering the defense authorization bill. "That's a bad system," he said.

House and Senate negotiators completed negotiations Wednesday on a new version of the defense bill that does not include provisions dealing with "don't ask, don't tell." Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and the panel's ranking member, John McCain (R-Ariz.), called on Congress to pass the bill before the lame-duck session ends.

In a joint statement, gay rights groups pushing to end the ban cheered Wednesday's vote, saying it "provides another resounding indication that 'don't ask, don't tell' can and should be repealed legislatively this year."

The groups, ranging from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress to the Log Cabin Republicans, plan to spend the rest of the week lobbying moderate Republican senators, including Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio). Neither has said in recent days how he might vote.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also asked the Senate on Wednesday to quickly pass the bill. Doing so would enable the Defense Department "to carefully and responsibly manage a change in this policy, instead of risking an abrupt change resulting from a decision in the courts," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a vocal defender of the current military policy, criticized Democrats for holding Wednesday's vote "before most members of Congress have sufficient time to consider the consequences of that reckless action."

"Congressional chaos has become the new normal," she said.

McCain, the leading Republican critic of efforts to end the ban this year, did not comment on Wednesday's vote.

A majority of Americans support allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in uniform, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week.

Staff writers Ben Pershing and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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