The full House and the Armed Services Committee in the Senate voted on Thursday to allow the Pentagon to lift its controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, clearing the way for the Obama administration to repeal the Clinton-era ban on gays in the military.
The votes represented a major step forward in the months-long effort to repeal the ban, which President Obama had vowed to do as a presidential candidate. All House vote 234 to 194, with five Republicans joining all but 26 Democrats. All but one Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee voted for the measure, along with a single Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
The proposal is a compromise measure that would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” statute while allowing the White House and Pentagon to formally approve the change before it takes effect. The defense department is currently reviewing the potential impact of lifting the ban, scheduled to be completed in December.
“Today’s action by the Senate Armed Services Committee is an important step to end this discriminatory policy,” the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said in a statement. “This legislation provides for the completion of the Pentagon study of how to effectively end the ban and ensures that its repeal will not disrupt our military’s readiness, morale or cohesion. I believe that allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly will open the ranks to more patriotic men and women who wish to serve their country.”
Until this week, the effort to repeal the ban on gays in the military seemed to have lost momentum. Democratic lawmakers in swing districts expressed reservations about the proposal, out of fear that voters would punish them for focusing on social issues rather than the economy.
But gay rights leaders began to grow anxious about the future prospects of repeal. Democrats are projected to lose a considerable number of seats in Congress in the coming midterm elections, and may even lose their majority in the House of Representatives. Leaders of the nation’s largest and most influential gay rights organizations, as well as several major Democratic donors, have threatened to boycott the party if Obama and Congressional leaders do not act on their agenda.
Sponsors of the bill say they have secured enough votes to pass both houses of congress, but obstacles remain. Sen. John McCain has vowed to block the proposal, and Republicans are likely to accuse Democrats of jeopardizing national security.
“This vote short-circuits the ongoing Pentagon review of the policy and thereby denies our men and women in uniform a chance to have their voices,” McCain said in a statement. “The vote today is a de facto repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law, and I am concerned that the men and women of our military will view this preemptive political action as a deep sign of disrespect and unwillingness to consider their views.”
Nonetheless, gay rights leaders hailed the vote on Thursday as a major sign of progress.
“The importance of this vote cannot be overstated — this is the beginning of the end of a shameful ban on open service by lesbian and gay troops that has weakened our national security,” Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “The stars are aligning to finally restore honor and integrity to those who serve our country so selflessly.”