Senate Repeals Ban Against Openly Gay Military Personnel
The Senate on Saturday struck down the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, bringing to a close a 17-year struggle over a policy that forced thousands of Americans from the ranks and caused others to keep secret their sexual orientation.
By a vote of 65 to 31,with eight Republicansjoining Democrats, the Senate approved and sent to President Obama a repeal of the Clinton-era law,known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy critics said amountedto government-sanctioned discrimination that treated gay and lesbian troops assecond-class citizens.
Mr. Obama hailed the action, which fulfills hispledge to reverse the ban. “As commander in chief, I am also absolutelyconvinced that making this change will only underscore the professionalism ofour troops as the best led and best trained fighting force the world has everknown,” Mr. Obama said in a statement after the Senate, on a63-33 vote, beatback Republican efforts to block a final vote on the repeal bill.
The vote marked a historic moment that some equatedwith the end of racial segregation in the military.
It followed a comprehensive review by the Pentagonthat found a low risk to military effectiveness despite greater concerns amongsome combat units and the Marine Corps. The review also found that Pentagonofficials supported Congressional repeal as a better alternative than ancourt-ordered end.
Supporters of the repeal said it was long past timeto end what they saw as an ill-advised practice that cost valuable personneland forced troops to lie to serve their country.
“We righted a wrong, ”said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent from Connecticutwho led the effort to end the ban. “Today we’ve done justice.”
Before voting on the repeal, the Senate blocked abill that would have created a path to citizenship for certain illegalimmigrants who came to the United States at a young age, completed two years ofcollege or military service and met other requirements including passing acriminal background check.
The 55-41 vote in favor of the citizenship bill wasfive votes short of the number needed to clear the way for final passage ofwhat is known as the Dream Act. The outcome effectively kills it for this year,and its fate beyond that is uncertain since Republicans who will assume controlof the House in January oppose the measure and are unlikely to bring it to avote.
The Senate then moved on to the military legislation,engaging in an emotional back and forth over the merits of the measure asadvocates for repeal watched from galleries crowded with people interested inthe fate of both the military and immigration measures. “I don’t care who you love,”Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the debateopened. “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’thave to hide who you are.”
Mr. Wyden showed up for the Senate vote despitesaying earlier that he would be unable to do so because he would be undergoingfinal tests before his scheduled surgery for prostate cancer on Monday.
The vote came in the final days of the 111thCongress as Democrats sought to force through a final few priorities beforethey turn over control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans inJanuary and see their clout in the Senate diminished.
It represented a significant victory for the WhiteHouse, Congressional advocates of lifting the ban and activists who have pushedfor years to end the Pentagon policy created in 1993 under the Clintonadministration as a compromise effort to end the practice of banning gay menand lesbians entirely from military service. Saying it represented an emotionalmoment for members of the gay community nationwide, activists who supportedrepeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” exchanged hugs outside the Senate chamberafter the vote.
“Today’s vote means gay and lesbian service membersposted all around the world can stand taller knowing that ‘don’t ask, don’ttell’ will soon be coming to an end,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
The executive director of the Log CabinRepublicans, a gay group that challenged the policy in federal court, thanked Republicanssenators for participating in a historic vote. The director, R. Clarke Cooper,who is a member of the Army Reserve, said repeal will "finally end apolicy which has burdened our armed services for far too long, depriving ournation of the talent, training and hard won battle experience of thousands ofpatriotic Americans. "
A federal judge had ruled the policy unconstitutionalin response to the Log Cabin suit, but that decision had been stayed pendingappeal.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center inCalifornia, a research institute at the University of California in Santa Barbarathat studies issues surrounding gays and lesbians in the military, said thatthe vote “ushers in a new era in which the largest employer in the UnitedStates treats gays and lesbians like human beings.”
In a statement on the group’s website, Mr. Belkinsaid: “It has long been clear that there is no evidence that lifting the banwill undermine the military, and no reason to fear the transition to inclusivepolicy. Research shows that moving quickly is one of the keys to a successfultransition. If the President and military leadership quickly certify the end of‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ they will ensure an orderly transition with minimaldisruption."
Organizations that opposed repeal of the banassailed the Republican senators who defied their party majority.
The Center for Military Readiness, a group thatspecializes in social issues in the military and has opposed repeal, said thenew legislation “will impose heavy, unnecessary burdens on the backs ofmilitary men and women.” It said the Senate majority voted with “needlesshaste” by not waiting for hearings into a recent Department of Defense study ofthe “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Elaine Donnelly, president of the group,said that the Pentagon’s survey indicated that 32 percent of Marines and 21.4 percent of Army combattroops would leave the military sooner than planned if “don’t ask, don’t tell”were repealed.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts FamilyInstitute, said senators like Scott Brown, a Republican from Massachusetts, “broketrust with the people” by voting on repeal before the federal budget was resolved and “have putthe troops at risk during wartime.”
During the debate, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and his party’spresidential candidate in 2008, led the opposition to the repeal and said thevote was a sad day in history. “I hope that when we pass this legislation thatwe will understand that we are doing great damage,” Mr. McCain said. “And wecould possibly and probably, as the commandant of the Marine Corps said, and asI have been told by literally thousands of members of the military, harm thebattle effectiveness vital to the survival of our young men and women in themilitary.”
He and other opponents of lifting the ban said thechange could harm the unit cohesion that is essential to effective militaryoperations, particularly in combat, and deter some Americans from enlisting orpursuing a career in the military. They noted that despite support forrepealing the ban from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other military commandershave warned that changing the practice would prove disruptive.
“This isn’t broke, ”Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said aboutthe policy. “It is working very well.”
Other Republicans said that while the policy mightneed to be changed at some point, Congress should not do so when Americantroops are fighting overseas.
“In the middle of a military conflict, is not thetime to do it,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia.
Only a week ago, the effort to repeal the “don’task, don’t tell” policy seemed to be dead and in danger of fading for at leasttwo years with Republicans about to take control of the House. The provisioneliminating 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 billbecause of objections over the ability to debate the measure.
In a last-ditch effort, Mr. Lieberman and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a key Republican opponentof the ban, encouraged Democratic Congressional leaders to instead pursue avote on simply repealing it. The House passed the measure earlier in the week.
The repeal will not take effect for at least 60days while some other procedural steps are taken. In addition, the billrequires the defense secretary to determine that policies are in place to carryout the repeal “consistent with military standards for readiness,effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.”
Because of the uncertainty, Mr. Sarvis appealed toMr. Gates to suspend any investigations into military personnel or dischargeproceedings under the policy to be overturned in the coming months.
Mr. Lieberman said the ban undermined the integrityof the military by forcing troops to lie. He said14,000 members of the armedforces 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 roilingpolitical issue ever since. Mr. Obama endorsed repeal in his own campaign andadvocates saw the current Congress as their best opportunity for ending theban. Dozens of advocates of ending the ban — including one wounded in combatbefore being forced from the military — watched from the Senate gallery as thedebate took place.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairmanof the Armed Services Committee, dismissed Republican complaints that Democratswere trying to race through the repeal to satisfy their political supporters.
“I’m not here for partisan reasons,” Mr. Levinsaid. “I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United Stateswho are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian menand women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the lineright now.”
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leaderand a crucial proponent of the repeal, noted that some Republicans hadindicated they might try to block Senate approval of a nuclear arms treaty withRussia because of their pique over the Senate action on the ban.
“How’s that’s for statesmanship?” Mr. Reid said.