DADT repeal clears two major Congressional hurdles

Carl Levin

Carl Levin

The U.S. House voted 234 to 194 Thursday night to approve a compromise amendment that many believe will—with some conditions—eventually lead to the end of the military’s policy of discharging gay servicemembers.

The vote was the second major victory of the day for proponents of repeal. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a similar amendment just hours earlier by a vote of 16 to 12.

The fight is hardly over—at least two Republican senators have said they would support a filibuster over the underlying defense authorization bill in order to stop repeal of the 17-year-old Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law. And, both chambers will have to vote again after a conference committee works out the differences between the two versions of the defense funding bill.

But for now, LGBT activists are celebrating a pair of dramatic and hard won victories against a policy which has led to the discharge of more than 13,000 servicemembers so far.

“The votes in the Senate Committee and on the House floor to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ constitute one of the most important advances in our fight against prejudice based on sexual orientation,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a key Democratic leader involved in that fight. “A very few years from now, it will be clear that the fears expressed by our opponents’ arguments were totally without foundation. I particularly want to express my admiration and great appreciation to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, and Representative Patrick Murphy, for their extraordinary leadership in bringing this about.”

Murphy (D-Penn.) was the chief sponsor of the measure to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and pressed vigorously for a vote even when the Pentagon pushed vigorously for a delay. And Pelosi promised support for the measure and to let the measure to the floor, even as some reports claimed that conservative Democrats were beginning to bail out for fear of repercussions during the mid-term elections.

The repeal measure that passed the House floor vote and the Senate committee was a compromise worked out during a meeting with White House officials on Monday. The compromise calls for repeal of the DADT federal law to take place only after two things occur: 1) the Secretary of Defense receives the implementation report he has asked for by December 1, and 2) “The President transmits to the congressional defense committees a written certification, signed by the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating” that three additional things have been accomplished. Those three things are: 1) that the three men have “considered the recommendations contained in the report and the report’s proposed plan of action,” 2) the DOD has “prepared the necessary policies and regulations to exercise” repeal, and 3) that the implementation of those policies and regulations is “consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.”

While most supporters of repeal in the LGBT community praised the compromise and applauded its securing a vote in Congress this year, there were critics, too. They said the measure does not guarantee that the military will stop discharging gays. In fact, many supporters of repeal acknowledged as much during debate Thursday.

“It doesn’t repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said Speaker Pelosi during a press conference Thursday. “It defers to when that [DOD] report comes forth and then repeals Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

And Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who earlier this year told the Senate Armed Services Committee that repeal of DADT is “the right thing to do,” told a town hall meeting of servicemembers at a Colorado air base Wednesday that the compromise’s provision for certification means, “to certify whether we should move ahead with that change, even if the law were to repeal it.”

But for now, Congressional repeal of the DADT law is underway. The repeal measure reached the floor of the House at about 8:30 Thursday evening, after nearly 10 hours of off and on debate. The time allotted to debate of the Murphy Amendment was only 10 minutes, so Republicans used their time allotment during consideration of other amendments to express their vehement opposition to the Murphy Amendment.

The common themes among opponents who spoke—all but two of whom were Republicans—were that Democrats were trying to rush the issue, renege on an agreement to let the Pentagon study how best to implement repeal, and ignore the views of servicemembers. Some, like Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), said the amendment was “advancing a liberal political agenda.” Many said that Congress shouldn’t vote until the Pentagon had worked out procedures around such matters as sleeping quarters and the extension of benefits to same-sex spouses.

Rep. Frank went to the floor early in the day to say that, if he had introduced an amendment to exempt gays from a military draft, these same opponents would be criticizing him for seeking “special rights” for gays.

And longtime civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) made an impassioned comparison between DADT and the early segregation of troops by race.

“The military helped end segregation based on race,” said Lewis, “and can help end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The federal law excluding gays from the military, he said, “is an affront to human dignity.”

“Discrimination is wrong and we must end it,” said Lewis.

In praising the work to pass the repeal amendment, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, also emphasized that “it doesn’t end the discharges.”

“The repeal amendment allowed for Congress to act while respecting the ongoing work by the Pentagon on how to implement open service for lesbian and gay service members,” said Sarvis. “Nothing would happen until the Pentagon Working Group completes its report and the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President certifies repeal.”

But Servicemembers United Executive Director Alexander Nicholson said the two victories Thursday demonstrated “real momentum in the battle to finally rid the United States Code of the outdated” DADT law.

“All of us who have served under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and who have been impacted by this law,” said Nicholson, who was himself discharged under the law, “will remember this day as the beginning of the end for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

Oddly, more than an hour after the DADT repeal amendment had passed the House and the chamber appeared to be almost empty, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) continued to debate the issue. Gohmert, who is prone to bombastic rants, said “we’ve accepted the loss of morality” by allowing gays in the military and, speaking in almost a whisper, he said the House has “betrayed” servicemembers and “it breaks my heart.”

“I’m so sorry that this body broke its word for political gain,” he said.

The White House issued a statement from President Obama about an hour after passage, too.

“I have long advocated that we repeal ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’,” said Obama, who brought it up in his State of the Union speech in January but did not mention it in his message to Congress this week about the DOD authorization bill.

“This legislation,” he said, “will help make our Armed Forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity.”

The full Senate will take up the DOD authorization bill sometime after the Memorial Day recess. There, Republicans are threatening a filibuster.

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