Congressional Democrats Push to End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Rep. Patrick Murphy is pushing a bill to repeal the policy.

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As a young company commander in Baghdad, Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, led troops "who didn't care about your color, creed, race, or sexual orientation—they cared about whether you could fire your M-4 assault rifle and kick a door down."

Today, he is spearheading the House legislative effort to repeal the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which bans openly homosexual troops from serving in the military. The first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, Murphy has taken up the cause, he says, because since being commissioned as an officer in 1993, he "saw so many great soldiers thrown out not for any misconduct but just because they are gay." This week in Philadelphia, flanked by former soldiers, Murphy launched a multi-city campaign to talk up his bill to change the law. It is not just the right thing to do, he says, but a matter of national security.

That line has become the rallying cry for a cadre of congressional Democrats intent on overturning the ban, enacted in 1993. It has helped, staffers say, that over at the Pentagon, there has been a notable shift in the tone of senior officials regarding the law, if not the expulsion of gay troops.

Still, since President Obama took office in January, 296 service members have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." For this, the president has drawn criticism from fellow Democratswho note that abolishing the policy was one of Obama's campaign promises. This fact has, in turn, become a topic of discussion at the White House, according to Pentagon officials. As a result, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in Junethat Defense Department lawyers are trying to implement the president's policy goals by looking for ways to soften the Pentagon's interpretation of the law until it is repealed, as many senior officials expect. "The issue that we face," Gates explained, is "How do we begin to do preparations" even as the White House asks Congress "to change the law?" Those interim preparations, Gates said, include investigations into whether "there is flexibility in how we apply this law."

He has offered by way of example a gay serviceman who might be turned in by "somebody who may have a vendetta." Gates asks, "Is there a way we cannot focus on those kinds of reports?"

The answer to that question, he added, has yet to be determined. In the meantime, congressional staffers say that behind the scenes, they are exploring their options. New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recently shelved a plan to add an amendment to the 2010 defense authorization bill that would have placed an 18-month moratorium on the law. "There's a sense that we can do this, we're just not going to do it as an amendment to a defense bill," says one Senate staffer.

But congressional Democrats face obstacles. Murphy notes that as he works to drum up support for the bill, he privately hears from colleagues, "I want to, but I'm in a tough district." To this, Murphy says he responds that he won his district by 0.6 percent. The moderate "blue dog" Democrat also points to the cost of expelling gay troops, including the $60,000 expense of recruiting and training each new soldier—a considerable waste of taxpayer dollars, he says. With those arguments, he has managed to whip up 164 cosponsors to a bill repealing the ban. "I need 218 votes total to pass this thing," he says. "And we're working every single day to put pressure out there to get it done." Murphy hopes that will happen later this year, after Congress finishes tackling healthcare reform.