In Historic Vote, Congress Clears Major Hurdles To Ending 17-Year-Old ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Policy

Last night, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House successfully attached an amendment repealing the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to this year’s defense authorization bill, clearing major hurdles to ending the 17-year old discriminatory policy. Despite Rep. Mike Pence’s (R-IN) promise of a “unified GOP opposition to lifting the ban,” five Republicans supported ending the ban in the House (Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Ron Paul (R-TX), Charles Djou (R-HI), Joseph Cao (R-LA), Judy Biggert (R-IL)) for a final vote of 234-194, and one, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), voted for repeal in the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the amendment passed 16-12. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) was the only Democrat to oppose the measure in Committee.

During the closed Armed Services Committee vote, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) reportedly challenged his friend Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to support the measure. McCain complained about the political nature of the debate, to which Lieberman responded, “Come’n John, look who is playing politics.” As the vote neared, McCain seemed confident in his defeat. “I’m ready to vote and I’m ready to lose,” he was quoted as saying.

In the House, the debate was no less contentious. Republicans had spent the entire afternoon condemning gay service in the military and were challenged on the floor by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Hoyer likened the pending ban against open service to the desegregation of the armed forced in the 1940s and the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. Hoyer read from the rhetoric of obstructions from decades past and likened their tone to today’s GOP criticisms.

“I’ll tell my friends, I have some rhetoric here that was used in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946, when there were some American that you didn’t have to ask, they didn’t have to tell, because you knew they were African American.” “And I heard Strom Thurmond speak on the floor of the Senate, speaking about discriminating against people because of the color of their skin, separate but equal. I’ve heard the same rhetoric,” Hoyer said before preceding to read the quotes from that time: “The army is the wrong place for social experiments. Keep African Americans in their place.” “Hear that language? That was used back in 1948 and read the transcripts today,” Hoyer said. Then, he turned to the debate at hand, confronting the GOP with Colin Powell’s support for repeal:

HOYER: Ladies and Gentlemen, look to your hearts and your conscience. Is there one of us — is there one of us that would say General Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs undermined the morale and the effectiveness of the United States Army? Is there one of us? I’ll yield to anybody who wants to say that he undermined the morale of our services. No one? No one? This is not a social experiment any more than that was a social experiment, any more than in 1990 when we wanted to deal with those with disabilities. It was a social experiment. It was the bedrock of what America is….but I tell you, my friends, this bill is about our national security. This bill is about people who perform their service to our country. This bill is about making sure that America is safe. This bill is about making sure that we defeat terrorism and keep America safe. Let’s focus on that. Let’s not be distracted.

Watch it:

In his closing argument on the floor, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) — who sponsored the amendment and led the fight for repeal in the House — told the story of Former Air Force Sgt. David Hall, who followed the rules of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell but was discharged after someone outed him. “I assure you I am fit for military duty,” Hall told Murphy. “Please stop discharging patriotic Americans who just want to serve the country they love.”

After the vote, Obama said he was pleased by the move toward repeal. “Our military is made up of the best and bravest men and women in our nation, and my greatest honor is leading them as Commander-in-Chief,” Obama said in a statement. “This legislation will help make our Armed Forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity.”

Having passed the Senate Armed Services Committee the defense authorization bill now moves to the full Senate chamber, which will take-up the measure after the Memorial Day recess. But passage is not guaranteed. The House has defied Obama’s veto threat against funding for two Joint Strike Fighter engines and the Pentagon “is aggressively pushing for a veto” of any measure that includes the funding (which is not included in the Senate version of the bill). Rep. John Larson (D-CT), who supports repeal and opposes the funding said he expects Obama to stay true to this threat. “I fully expect the President to follow through with his threatened veto of the Defense Authorization Act if the F-35 Extra Engine Program is in the final legislation,” Larson said.

If the bill passes, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will remain in place until President Obama, the Defense Secretary, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that repeal is “consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.” The public will also have 60 days to review the study before the ban is officially lifted.