'Don't ask, don't tell' is repealed by Senate; bill awaits Obama's signing

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 12:10 AM

The U.S. military will for the first time in history allow gays to serve openly after the Senate voted Saturday to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that has required such troops to hide their sexual identity or risk being expelled from the services.

While opponents said repeal would create a battlefield distraction that could endanger troops, supporters drew parallels to the military's decision to end racial segregation in the 1950s and the admission of women to military service academies in the 1970s.

"This is the defining civil rights initiative of this decade," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "Congress has taken an extraordinary step on behalf of men and women who've been denied their rightful integrity for too long."

For decades, being gay was grounds for discharge, and tens of thousands of service members were forced out after their sexual identities were exposed. President Bill Clinton, who had hoped to end that ban, authorized "don't ask" as a compromise in 1993. More than 13,000 troops have been discharged under the policy.

The years-long legislative debate over the policy came to an end Saturday as senators voted 65 to 31 to send the repeal legislation to President Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to eliminate the ban on gays serving openly. Eight Republicans joined 57 members of the Democratic caucus; four senators did not vote.

"It is time to close this chapter in our history," Obama said later in a statement. "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."

The vote came after an exhaustive Pentagon review found that allowing gays to serve openly posed a "low risk" of disruption and that a large majority of troops expected that it would have little or no effect on their units.

Top Pentagon officials - who lobbied vigorously for repeal, in part because they feared that a court-ordered lifting of the ban would be far more disruptive - said Saturday that it would take months and perhaps longer to implement the new policy.

"We will be a better military as a result," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Changing perspectives

Clinton's effort to change the Defense Department policy that deemed homosexuality incompatible with military service was upended by resistance from top military advisers, Congress and the American public. The bill he eventually signed - enacting the policy officially known as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" - was drafted in part by lawmakers opposed to gays in the military.

Yet public sentiment toward gays in the military has since shifted: In May 1993, just 44 percent of Americans believed gays who disclosed their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military; now, 77 percent of Americans think so, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month.

In the first two years of the Obama presidency, gay rights activists and others who sought an end to the ban expressed frustration that it was not quickly repealed. Indeed, the repeal failed to advance twice in the Senate this year, and as recently as Dec. 9 it was widely seen as unlikely to survive.

Ahead of Saturday's vote, senators laid out their positions for and against ending the ban.

"As Barry Goldwater said, 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight,' " said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), referring to the late GOP senator from Arizona.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading opponent of the measure, said liberals with no military experience were pushing a social agenda on troops during wartime despite reservations among the fighting forces.

"They will do what is asked of them," McCain said of the troops. "But don't think there won't be a great cost."

Gay rights activists always assumed that at least four Republican senators would vote to end the ban, but Saturday's result yielded a total of eight.

The bill's GOP co-sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), said Saturday that she knew two party colleagues - George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Mark Steven Kirk (Ill.) - would join her, Scott Brown (Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) in voting to end the ban. She suspected that John Ensign (Nevada) might also join them, and she called an unexpected yes vote from Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), "gutsy."

"This is one of the days where you really feel privileged to be in the U.S. Senate," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the other co-sponsor of the bill. "There's been a lot of difficult times the last couple of years because it's so partisan to get anything done. But here we are, it came together."

The House on Wednesday approved the repeal bill on a vote of 250 to 175. Obama will sign the legislation this week, the White House said.

The Senate vote delivered another significant bipartisan victory for the president, one day after he signed an $858 billion tax-cut package that the White House negotiated with congressional Republicans.

Next steps

The ban will not be formally lifted until after Obama and top military leaders report to Congress that they have reviewed the findings of the Pentagon review about the ban, released last month, and that the Defense Department has drafted policies and regulations to stop enforcing it. Those changes must not affect troop readiness, cohesion or military recruitment and retention, according to the law.

Even after the finding, lawmakers will be able to hold hearings for two months to review the Pentagon's policies and procedures for accepting openly gay troops, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Saturday that the law remains in effect and that the process of implementing the change in policy "will take an additional period of time."

"I will approach this process deliberately and will make such certification only after careful consultation with the military service chiefs and our combatant commanders and when I am satisfied that those conditions have been met for all the services, commands and units," Gates said.

Close military observers say that the ease of ending the ban will vary widely among the military branches and that the Pentagon could stagger implementation of the change.

Combat Marines are especially concerned about the possibility of serving alongside openly gay colleagues, and Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine commandant, has suggested that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could result in deadly distractions. Several Republican senators cited Amos's concerns Saturday before voting against the bill.

Obama phoned wavering senators Saturday morning to ensure the bill's passage, and several aides who worked closely on the issue, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, watched the vote later from the Senate gallery.

As the voting continued, a white-haired woman seated high in the Senate gallery pumped her fist in the air when she heard that Oregon's Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, had voted yes.

Others silently high-fived each other as the final tally was announced.

Air Force veteran Michael Almy, 40, was also watching. If troops discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" are permitted to reenlist, as the Pentagon study recommends, he said he intends to do so.

"I can't wait to be a part of it again," he said Saturday.

Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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