Democrats Poised to End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

If the measure clears the Senate, the ban on gays serving in the military wouldn't end immediately.

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Until last week, the White House and the Pentagon had appeared content to wait until at least December to address the ban on openly homosexual soldiers and Marines serving in the armed forces. That's the delivery date for a Pentagon review of the issue. But Democrats on Capitol Hill moved up their timetable and, after critical votes, are poised to overturn the policy.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16 to 12 to approve an amendment to the $760 billion defense spending bill that establishes a road map for the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. If the measure clears the full Senate—and opponents would have to filibuster the entire defense bill to thwart it—the ban wouldn't end immediately. Rather, the legislation abolishes the policy once the president and the Pentagon certify that a repeal will not hurt military readiness, recruitment, and retention. Identical language, sponsored by Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress, passed the House 234 to 194 a few hours later. [See who gives the most to Murphy's campaign.]

Gay rights activists and their congressional supporters pushed ahead in part, they say, because the must-pass defense bill was a convenient vehicle for carrying the controversial measure. In addition, they feared that waiting for the Pentagon to conclude its review would have meant punting the matter to the next Congress, where Democrats may have considerably smaller majorities after the fall elections, if they even manage to hold both chambers. Last week, a man at a San Francisco fundraiser heckled President Obama, urging him to move faster with the repeal. "Come on, man. I'm working with Congress here," Obama shot back in his own defense. "It takes a little bit of time."

Since the rule was implemented in 1993, as a compromise intended to soften the outright ban on homosexuals in the military, nearly 14,000 servicemembers have been discharged under DADT. Critics of the rule point to the loss of many with valuable skills, such as foreign language fluency, needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office found that 730 intelligence specialists were discharged under DADT in the law's first decade. Servicemembers United, an advocacy group of Iraq and Afghan veterans, contends that despite benign intentions to permit gays to serve if they hide their sexual orientation, the policy has been "consistently misunderstood, misapplied, and grossly abused."

Liberals and social conservatives have long sparred over the ban on gay service members serving openly in the military. Some senior military officers remain hostile to the proposed change, and polls show that a slight majority of active service members would prefer not to serve with openly gay men and women. But general public opinion has shifted. According to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of the nation supports ending the ban, an increase from 54 percent support in a Harris poll taken in 1993.