Senate repeals 'don't ask, don't tell'
The Senate on Saturday voted 65-31 to strike down the 17-year ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military and sent President Obama legislation to overturn the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."
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Seattle Times news services
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Saturday voted 65-31 to strike down the 17-year ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military and sent President Obama legislation to overturn the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Obama was expected to sign the bill into law this week, although changes to military policy probably wouldn't take effect for at least several months. Under the bill, the president and his top military advisers must first certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight. After that, the military would undergo a 60-day wait period.
Repeal would mean that, for the first time in U.S. history, gays would be openly accepted by the armed forces and could acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out.
More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law.
"It is time to close this chapter in our history," Obama said. "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."
Supporters hailed the vote as a major step forward for gay rights. Many activists hope that integrating openly gay troops within the military will lead to greater acceptance in the civilian world, as it did for blacks after President Truman's 1948 executive order on equal treatment regardless of race in the military.
"We righted a wrong," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who led the effort to end the prohibition on gays in the military. "Today we've done justice."
Eight Republicans sided with the 55 Democrats and two independents in favor of repeal in the 65-31 vote.
Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, voted for the bill. The eight Republicans who sided with Democrats are: Richard Burr, of North Carolina; Mark Kirk, of Illinois; Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska; George Voinovich, of Ohio; Scott Brown, of Massachusetts; John Ensign, of Nevada; and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, of Maine.
Four senators did not vote.
The House passed an identical version of the bill, 250-175, last week.
Before advancing the "don't ask" repeal legislation, the Senate engaged in an emotional debate over the merits of the measure.
"I don't care who you love," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., 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."
Wyden showed up for the vote despite saying Friday that he would be unable to do so because he would be undergoing final tests before scheduled surgery for prostate cancer Monday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led the opposition to repeal. Minutes before a crucial test vote, he acknowledged he couldn't stop the bill. He blamed elite liberals with no military experience for pushing their social agenda on troops during wartime.
"They will do what is asked of them," McCain said of service members. "But don't think there won't be a great cost."
How the military will implement a change in policy, and how long that will take remains unclear. Senior Pentagon officials have said the new policy could be rolled out incrementally, service by service or unit by unit.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he will begin the certification process immediately. But any change in policy won't come until after consultation with military-service chiefs and combatant commanders, he said.
"Successful implementation will depend upon strong leadership, a clear message and proactive education throughout the force," he said.
The Pentagon has said it could take up to a year to implement the policy.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, welcomed the change. "No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so," he said. "We will be a better military as a result."
The Defense Department reported last month that in an eight-month study of more than 115,000 military personnel, 70 percent said ending the ban on gays serving openly would have a positive or neutral impact.
But combat-unit personnel were more skeptical, as 58 percent of Marines and 48 percent of Army respondents said ending the ban would have negative consequences. A substantial minority also said repeal could affect morale, training and whether they would stay in the military. Marines voiced the loudest opposition, the survey found.
Those findings became ammunition for opponents of repeal, including the service chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," Gen. James Amos, head of the Marine Corps, said last week. "I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda (Naval Medical Center) with no legs be the result of any type of distraction."
Mullen and Gates countered that the fear of disruption is overblown and could be addressed through training.
Even with backing from Gates and Mullen, the bill appeared all but dead this month when Senate Republicans united against it on procedural grounds. In last-minute wrangling, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was able to revive the bill for the rare Saturday session with just days to go before the lame-duck session is to end.
The Republicans who voted for repeal said the Pentagon study on gays and assurances from senior military leaders played a crucial role.
"The repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' will be implemented in a common-sense way," said Voinovich. "Our military leaders have assured Congress that our troops will engage in training and address relevant issues before instituting this policy change."
Advocacy groups were jubilant after the Senate's initial test vote earlier Saturday that passed 63-33 to set up final passage. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network called the issue the "defining civil-rights initiative of this decade."
Supporters of repeal filled the visitor seats overlooking the Senate floor, ready to protest had the bill failed. "This has been a long-fought battle, but this failed and discriminatory law will now be history," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
At least 25 countries allow gays to serve openly in the armed forces, among them Britain, Canada and Israel, according to the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Compiled from The Associated Press,
The New York Times and
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