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White House, lawmakers set to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”

The White House has endorsed a measure proposed by congressional leaders on Monday that would repeal the military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, according to administration officials and gay rights advocates.

In a statement posted on its website late Monday evening, the Human Rights Campaign said the vote could take place as early as this Thursday.  The bill would be a compromise measure that repeals the statute but allows the White House and Pentagon to approve the change before it formally takes effect.

“We are on the brink of historic action to both strengthen our military and respect the service of lesbian and gay troops,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in the statement. “Today’s announcement paves the path to fulfill the President’s call to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ this year and puts us one step closer to removing this stain from the laws of our nation.”

The Pentagon offered what CNN called a “lukewarm response” to the bill, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would accept the language in the congressional proposal:

Gates “continues to believe that ideally the [Defense Department] review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal” the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, according to a Pentagon statement.

But “with Congress having indicated that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”

Lawmakers notified the White House on Monday that they had agreed on a compromise measure and would introduce an amendment repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the defense spending authorization bill, which is currently wending its way through Congress. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was itself enacted as an amendment to the defense department budget 17 years ago, during the Clinton administration.

In his reply, White House budger director Peter Orszag told the lawmakers that the administration would endorse the proposal because it allows the Pentagon to conduct a readiness review, set to be completed in December, before the change formally takes effect.

“Such an approach recognizes the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process through a thorough understanding of their concerns, insights and suggestions,” Orszag wrote.

The White House and Democratic leaders have been under considerable pressure to move more quickly on gay rights legislation. President Obama promised during the 2008 Democratic primary to work to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and repeated that pledge in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

But many marginal Democrats in seats traditionally held by Republicans have been reluctant to support repeal out of fear that voters will punish them for focusing on social issues rather than the economy. Already, lawmakers in some of the most liberal states in the country have for similar reasons defeated bills to legalize gay marriage, dealing a major blow to gay rights activists across the country.

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