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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Advances - NYTimes.com

Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Advances - NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — Capping a 17-year political struggle, the Senate on Saturday cleared the way for repealing the Pentagon’s ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.

By a vote of 63 to 33, with six Republicans joining Democrats, the Senate acted to cut off debate on a measure that would let President Obama declare an end to the Clinton-era policy, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allows gay members of the armed forces to serve only if they keep their sexual orientation a secret. The vote indicated that there was easily enough support to push the measure to final passage.

“By ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” Mr. Obama said in a statement after the cloture vote. “And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.”

The vote put Congress at the brink of a historic moment that some equated with the decision to end racial segregation in the military. It followed a review by the Pentagon that found little concern in the military about ending the ban and that was backed by Pentagon officials as a better alternative to a court-ordered end.

Backers of the repeal said it was long past time to end what they saw as a discriminatory practice that cost valuable personnel and forced troops to lie to serve their country.

“I don’t care who you love,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the debate opened. “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”

Mr. Wyden showed up for the Senate vote despite saying on Friday that he would be unable to do so because he would be undergoing final tests before his scheduled surgery for prostate cancer on Monday.

The vote came in the final days of the 111th Congress as Democrats sought to force through a final few priorities before they turn over control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans in January and see their clout in the Senate diminished.

It represented a significant victory for the White House, Congressional advocates of lifting the ban and activists who have pushed for years to end the Pentagon policy created in 1993 under the Clinton administration as a compromise effort to end the practice of banning gay men and lesbians entirely from military service. Activists said it represented an emotional moment for members of the gay community nationwide.

Opponents of lifting the ban said the change could harm the unit cohesion that is essential to effective military operations, particularly in combat, and deter some Americans from enlisting or pursuing a career in the military. They noted that despite support for repealing the ban from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other military commanders have warned that changing the practice would prove disruptive.

“This isn’t broke,” Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said of about the policy. “It is working very well.”

Other Republicans said that while the policy might be need to changed at some point, Congress should not intrude on the issue now when American troops are fighting overseas.

“In the middle of a military conflict, is not the time to do it,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia.

The vote to lift the ban came after the Senate blocked — and effectively killed for this year — a measure that would have allowed some younger illegal immigrants to gain legal status by attending college or serving in the military.

Backers of that measure, known as the Dream Act, said it would have aided those who, through no fault of their own, were brought into the country illegally by their parents. But opponents said the initiative had the potential for fraud and amounted to a path to amnesty. The vote was 55 to 41, five votes short of the 60 necessary for the measure to advance.

Only a week ago, the effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seemed to be dead and in danger of fading for at least two years with Republicans about to take control of the House. The provision eliminating the ban was initially included in a broader Pentagon policy bill, and Republican backers of repeal had refused to join in cutting off a filibuster against the underlying bill because of objections over the ability to debate the measure.

In a last-ditch effort, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, encouraged Democratic Congressional leaders to instead pursue a vote on simply repealing the ban. The House passed the measure earlier in the week.

The Senate must take a second vote to approve the repeal and send it to President Obama for his signature. The repeal would not take effect for at least 60 days while some other procedural steps are taken. In addition the bill requires the defense secretary to determine that policies are in place to carry out the repeal “consistent with military standards for readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.”

Mr. Lieberman said the ban undermined the integrity of the military by forcing troops to lie. He said 14,000 members of the armed forces had been forced to leave the ranks under the policy.

“What a waste,” he said.

The fight erupted in the early days of President Bill Clinton’s administration and has been a roiling political issue ever since. Mr. Obama endorsed repeal in his own campaign and advocates saw the current Congress as their best opportunity for ending the ban. Dozens of advocates of ending the ban — including one wounded in combat before being forced from the military — watched from the Senate gallery as the debate took place.

Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed Republican complaints that Democrats were trying to race through the repeal to satisfy their political supporters.

“I’m not here for partisan reasons,” Mr. Levin said. “I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.”

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