WASHINGTON (BP)–The campaign to overturn the ban on military service by open homosexuals gained two major congressional victories Thursday that increased its likelihood of success.
The House of Representatives voted 234-194 late Thursday for a proposal to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that has been in force by federal law since 1993. Earlier, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved reversal of the policy in a 16-12 vote.
Both votes came on amendments to an annual Department of Defense authorization bill, which the House passed 229-186 Friday. The Senate will not take up the legislation before June.
A filibuster is available to senators who oppose reversing the ban. Some Republican members have said they would support a filibuster of the authorization bill because of the amendment’s inclusion, but the chances of such an effort succeeding are unknown.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prevents homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibits military commanders from asking service members if they are homosexual or about their “sexual orientation.”
Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” oppose repeal because they say it will undermine military readiness, cohesion, privacy, recruitment and retention, as well as the religious freedom of many service members and chaplains.
Advocates of maintaining the current policy expressed great dissatisfaction.
“I’ve never known of a better excuse for a filibuster than to stop the Congress of the United States from essentially destroying the greatest military force our nation has ever known.” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
While a Democratic Congress adopted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” 17 years ago with bipartisan support, repeal this year would occur with the help of few Republican votes in the Democrat-controlled chambers.
In the House vote Thursday, only five GOP members joined 229 Democrats in supporting repeal, while 26 Democrats voted with 168 Republicans in opposing it. One GOP senator voted with 15 Democrats for repeal in the Armed Services Committee, while one Democrat joined Republicans in opposition.
Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council and a Marine veteran, said in a written statement, “The hard left of the Democratic Party, led by President Obama and Speaker Pelosi, have chosen to put a political constituency with a radical agenda — the homosexual lobby — ahead of the well-being of our men and women in uniform.
“These politicians have seriously miscalculated if they believe they can use the military to advance this radical social policy without being held accountable,” he said.
The head of the country’s largest homosexual political organization applauded the congressional actions.
“Lawmakers today stood on the right side of history,” Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a written release. “This is a historic step to strengthen our armed forces and to restore honor and integrity to those who serve our country so selflessly.”
President Obama expressed his pleasure at both votes, saying in a written statement repeal “will help make our Armed Forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity.”
Obama promised during the 2008 election campaign to overturn the ban. During his State of the Union speech in January, the president said he would work for repeal this year.
The House and Senate actions Thursday came only three days after the White House and congressional leaders reached an agreement on a way to pass repeal of the ban before the November elections, which could eliminate the congressional advantage foes of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now possess. Under the agreement and subsequent legislation, repeal would not go into effect until the Pentagon has finished a study of the issue Dec. 1. The agreement requires that President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen sign off on repeal of the policy. All three are on record in support of repeal.
Gates implemented a comprehensive review of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in March. As part of the study, the Pentagon is eliciting feedback from military personnel and their families. Gates has expressed his desire that Congress wait to act until the review is completed, and in April said he believes “in the strongest possible terms” that the review should be complete prior to any legislative action.
The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines reiterated this week their support for completing review of the current policy before Congress acts. They all said delaying legislative action until the review is complete would signal to military members their views matter.
Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2008 presidential election, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, led opposition to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Senate committee. After the panel’s vote, McCain said in a written statement he deeply regretted the result, saying it “short circuits the ongoing Pentagon review of the policy…. 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 pre-emptive political action as a deep sign of disrespect and unwillingness to consider their views.”
In the House, the Republicans voting for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were Judy Biggert of Illinois, Anh (Joseph) Cao of Louisiana, newly elected Charles Djou of Hawaii, Ron Paul of Texas and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
The 26 Democrats voting against repeal were Marion Berry of Arkansas, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Rick Boucher of Virginia, Bobby Bright of Alabama, Christopher Carney of Pennsylvania, Travis Childers of Mississippi, Jerry Costello of Illinois, recently elected Mark Critz of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Davis of Tennessee, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Chet Edwards of Texas, Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, Gene Green of Texas, Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Solomon Ortiz of Texas, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Mike Ross of Arkansas, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, Ike Skelton of Missouri, John Spratt of South Carolina, John Tanner of Tennessee and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
Bright, Childers, Davis and Shuler are members of Southern Baptist churches.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the lone Republican to vote for repeal in the Armed Services Committee. Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia joined the rest of the GOP members of the panel to vote against repeal.
A possible, though probably not fatal, problem for supporters of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is another provision in the House authorization measure. On Thursday, representatives maintained in the bill $485 million to go toward a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Obama and Gates both oppose funding for the engine, and the White House has threatened a veto. The Senate is unlikely to have funds for the engine in its final bill. Differences between the two authorization bills will be worked out in a joint conference committee.
In other developments leading to Thursday’s votes:
— The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) sent a letter to all members of Congress Wednesday saying repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law does not resolve the religious liberty concerns that have been raised. In late April, 41 chaplains from several denominations told Obama and Gates in a letter the careers of many, if not most, military chaplains would end if the policy is overturned, either because they leave voluntarily or are pressured to depart.
— Secret homosexuals in the military are three times more likely to commit sexual assaults than heterosexuals, based on analysis of the Armed Forces’ own statistics, FRC said in a report released Wednesday.
— A Zogby International poll commissioned by FRC and released May 17 found 59 percent of Americans believe military leaders would be best at deciding whether homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the Armed Services, while 23 percent said Congress would be best at making that determination.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, assistant editor of Baptist Press. See how your represented voted on the amendment repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2010/roll317.xml.