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House Votes to End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

May 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The House of Representatives has approved a measure that could eliminate the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military. Judy Woodruff reports on the controversy surrounding the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: to action in Congress that could eliminate the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military.

Judy Woodruff has our report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the weeklong Memorial Day recess looming, the House forged ahead today with a $700 billion defense budget bill.

MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 229; the nays are 186.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The measure passed this afternoon and included repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. That 1993 law prohibits the military asking recruits if they are gay or actively searching them out. But gays who openly declare their status or engage in homosexual conduct are subject to being discharged.

The repeal was adopted last night as an amendment sponsored by Pennsylvania Democrat and Army veteran Patrick Murphy.

REP. PATRICK MURPHY, D-Pa.: When I served in Baghdad, my team didn’t care whether a fellow soldier was straight or gay. We cared if they could fire their M-4 assault rifle or run a convoy down Ambush Alley. Could they do their job so that everybody in our unit would come home safely? With our military fighting two wars, why on earth would we tell over 13,500 able-bodied Americans that their services are not needed?

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is the estimated number of men and women who have been forced to leave the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines since don’t ask was first put in place.

Under Murphy’s proposal, repeal would take effect only after the Pentagon completes its study into how the change would be implemented. Military leaders would also have to certify the change wouldn’t be disruptive.

The Defense Department study was announced by Secretary Robert Gates at a hearing in February and is due by the 1st of December.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we must — how we best prepare it — for it. We have received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A week earlier, President Obama called for repealing don’t ask in his State of the Union address. Mr. Obama’s position was quickly endorsed by the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

But, this week, leaders of the four military branches wrote that they firmly oppose congressional action before the military finishes its review. They sent letters to two leading Republicans, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Congressman Buck McKeon of California.

REP. HOWARD “BUCK” MCKEON, R-Calif.: We’re dissing the troops. That’s what we’re doing. We’re disrespecting them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other House Republicans joined McKeon in objecting to a vote on repeal, at least for now.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), Ind.: The American people don’t want the American military used as a vehicle to advance a liberal social agenda. Give the men and women in uniform a say before bringing this change to the floor of this House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats countered, the bill wouldn’t come into force until after the review was completed.

REP. ADAM SMITH, D-Wash.: It will meet, absolutely, the requirement that the secretary of defense and others have put out to get input from the armed forces. And it will not — let me repeat — will not be changed until the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Supporters and opponents also argued over the wisdom of letting gays serve openly in the military. Indiana Republican Steve Buyer said no one is guaranteed the right to join the armed forces.

REP. STEVE BUYER, R-Ind.: It lies within the discretion of Congress to establish qualifications for and conditions for service in the armed forces. You can’t be too tall. You can’t be too short. You can’t be — if you’re overweight. I mean, we make these decisions. Why? The purpose of the military is, we kill and break things. Unit cohesion is pretty important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Georgia Democrat John Lewis said the don’t ask policy is unjust.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-Ga.: Just like the military helped end segregation based on race, we should have put an end to don’t ask, don’t tell long ago. It is an affront to human dignity and to the dignity and the worth of every man and woman serving in our military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The repeal amendment ultimately passed 234-194. Five Republicans supported it, while 26 Democrats were opposed.

The prospects for ending don’t ask also advanced in the Senate yesterday, where the Armed Services Committee voted 16-12 in favor of repeal. But Republicans on this side of the Capitol have threatened to filibuster the defense funding bill when it reaches the floor, unless the repeal effort is removed.

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin chairs the committee. He said today Republicans would block the bill at their own risk.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich., Armed Services Committee chairman: The fact there’s one provision in here that some people don’t like, it seems to me, wouldn’t be sufficient appeal for 40 senators to — or 41 senators to filibuster a defense bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, advocacy groups on both sides of the debate sought to reinforce their positions.

PETER SPRIGG, Family Research Council: We have a lot of concerns about this. Our military is involved in two wars right now, and this is not the time to be using the military as a form of social experimentation.

AUBREY SARVIS, executive director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network: The reality is, today, there are over 66,000 service members who are gay and lesbian. And you know what? Most of their colleagues know. They know who is gay. They know who is straight. And it doesn’t make a difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama welcomed the developments, calling them important bipartisan steps toward repeal. Secretary Gates put out a video message to the troops, asking them to participate in the review.

ROBERT GATES: So, please, let us know how to do this right. I urge you to stay informed on this process, but do not let the ongoing political debate distract you from what is important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The full Senate is expected to begin debate on the defense bill and the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell next month.