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Gates says ‘dont ask, don’t tell’ repeal will take months

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told members of the military on Friday that a push by congressional Democrats to repeal the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would not be completed for several months, and may not be presented to President Obama until the end of the year.

The House passed a defense spending bill on Friday that included an amendment repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” statute, after a key Senate panel approved the same amendment Thursday evening. 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.

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.

Gates said in his address to troops on Friday that the bill would not be completed for some time, and sought to ease concerns among soldiers that the changes were being made without their input.

“While it appears likely that Congress will eventually change the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ law, we do not expect the legislation that would do this to be presented to the President for months — perhaps not until the end of the year,” Gates said. “While this process plays out over time, nothing will change in terms of our current policies and practices.  Current law, policies and regulations remain in place and we are obligated to abide by them as before.”

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 send the measure to President Obama for his approval, 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.”

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