The U.S. House of Representatives and a Senate panel have both approved measures that would begin the process of dismantling the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits gays and lesbians for serving openly in the military.
After a heated Thursday night floor debate, House members voted 234 to 194 to approve a repeal amendment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act sponsored by Pennsylvania representative Patrick Murphy.
“Tonight, Congress took a historic step toward repealing 'don’t ask, don’t tell' and toward ensuring that every American has the same opportunity I did to defend our nation,” said Murphy, who served as an Army paratrooper. “Patriotic Americans willing to take a bullet for their country should never be forced to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love."
Earlier Thursday evening, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a companion amendment by a 16-12 vote in a closed-door session.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the lone Republican on the committee joining 15 of her Democratic colleagues to approve the measure as an attachment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia was the only Democrat to vote against it.
If signed into law as part of the defense funding bill, the measure would not immediately repeal the law. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” would continue as the official policy of the military until two events occur: the Pentagon completes an implementation study due in December; and the secretary of Defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and President Barack Obama certify that repeal will not weaken military readiness. Once those two requirements are met, a 60-day waiting period will begin before the policy is finally lifted.
Repeal advocates celebrated the historic vote even as they acknowledged that it was one step in what promises to be a multitiered process.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network hailed Democrats for persevering in the face of opposition from the military’s leadership.
“Chairman Carl Levin and Sen. Joe Lieberman showed remarkable courage and steadfastness in the face of unprecedented and inappropriate last minute lobbying by the Pentagon service chiefs who seemed to have forgotten that they are not the policy makers here,” he said.
But Sarvis also cautioned that the road to repeal was not over.
“The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a historic road map to allowing open military service, but it doesn’t end the discharges," he said. "It is important for all gay and lesbian active duty service members, including the reserves and the National Guard, to know they’re at risk. They must continue to serve in silence under the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law that remains on the books.”
Some activists expressed concerns about the last-minute 60-day concession that was made to secure the vote of West Virginia senator Robert Byrd. But Alex Nicholson, executive director of the gay veterans group Servicemembers United, said the extra time would delay but ultimately not disrupt the repeal process.
“It is our understanding that the additional 60 days are just an extra cushion added into the delayed implementation timeline,” said Nicholson. Once the certification letter is signed and transmitted to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, he added, "the 60-day clock starts, and when it runs out, then the new law goes into effect automatically.”
Once the Pentagon working group issues its review, Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said he expects the process to proceed with dispatch.
“The experience of foreign militaries and dozens of studies have been that gays and lesbians should be integrated into the military immediately,” he said. “Following the completion of the study, we expect that the administration will proceed expeditiously.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stoked concerns of repeal advocates after he was quoted Thursday saying the certification process — or the “trigger” — would give military leadership control over whether to finally repeal the policy.
"That trigger is to certify whether we should move ahead with that change, even if the law were to repeal it," reported the American Forces Press Service.
But a spokesman for Mullen said the chairman’s quote was misinterpreted and that he remains personally committed to repeal.
“What he was trying to articulate there is that the draft legislation provides the department the ability to complete the review, exercise our own discretion with respect to new policies and regulations, and certify that we are ready for implementation before the policy can take effect,” Capt. John Kirby told The Advocate. “There is no doubt in the chairman’s mind that the president’s intent and desire is to repeal the policy.”