December 15, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
House votes again to repeal ‘Don’t Ask’

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

The U.S. House today approved by a 75-vote margin a measure that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as eyes shift once again to the Senate to see if the chamber will act to lift the military’s gay ban.

The measure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” passed by a vote of 250-175 after more than an hour of floor debate in which lawmakers engaged in often passionate discourse both in favor and in opposition to the 1993 law.

 

After lawmakers cast their votes, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the longest-serving openly gay lawmaker, banged the gavel at the podium and declared the final vote tally for the legislation.

 

During debate, those who spoke in favor of the repeal said lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end a discriminatory policy, while opponents of repeal said open service would jeopardize military effectiveness.

 

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” represented an opportunity to “close the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation.”

 

“Repealing the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy will honor the service and sacrifice of all who dedicated their lives to protecting the American people,” she said.

 

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the sponsor of repeal legislation in the House, said the vote for repeal was necessary to protect U.S. service members in the battlefield.

 

“Our troops are the best of the best, and they deserve a Congress that puts their safety — and our collective national security — over rigid partisan interests and a close-minded ideology,” Murphy said.

 

The Pennsylvania lawmaker noted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has said open service should be implemented to protect the integrity of the U.S. military.

 

“Well, this is also about the integrity of this institution — of this Congress,” Murphy said. “This vote is about whether we’re going to continue telling people willing to die for our freedoms that they need to lie in order to do so.”

 

The vote marks the second time this year that the House has approved a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal bill. In May, the chamber passed a repeal measure on the floor as an amendment to the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill by a vote of 234-194. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”-inclusive defense legislation failed to pass in the Senate.

 

Opposition this time around came from many Republicans, including Rep. W. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who said the vote on repeal represented an attempt fto impose a “social agenda” on the U.S. military during wartime as operations continue in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Akin blamed House leadership for failing to pass a defense authorization bill — which he called an “eclipse of reason” because it has consistently passed in Congress for the past 48 years — and said Congress should pass funds for troops through the defense legislation before moving to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

 

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, was also critical of Pelosi for bringing the repeal measure to the floor at this time and said the timing wasn’t right Congress to act on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

 

“The speaker has decided once more to subvert regular order … and bring to the floor [a measure] to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” McKeon said.

 

Among other things, McKeon was critical of how the House was holding a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before House committees had heard testimony on the Pentagon report on lifting the gay ban. Two days of hearings have already taken place earlier this month in the Senate on the report.

 

In response to Republicans’ assertions, Frank disputed that proper procedure hasn’t been followed on moving to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and noted that Republicans were responsible for filibustering the defense authorization bill in the Senate.

 

Frank noted the repeal measure had already passed in May by the full House and the Senate Armed Services Committee and said the notion that the committees of jurisdiction have been deprived on the issue was “delusional.”

 

“We’ve gone through triple regular order,” he said.

 

Among the 175 who voted against the repeal measure were 15 members of the Democratic caucus. They include House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), as well as Reps. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) and Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

 

Republicans who voted in favor of passing the legislation tallied out at 15 — which was 10 more Republicans than those who voted in May in favor of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” amendment.

 

Among the Republicans voting for repeal for the first time were Reps. Mary Bono Mack (D-Calif.), David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).

Passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the House first enables the chamber to send the legislation to the Senate as as “privileged” legislation.

 

The maneuver means the Senate won’t need 60 votes for the motion to proceed on the legislation, taking off the 30 hours of waiting time that would have been necessary were cloture filed on the measure. That’s significant as time is running out in the lame duck session.

 

Still, even though the first round 60 votes for the motion to proceed won’t be necessary, 60 votes would still be necessary in the Senate to move to final passage of the bill. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) this week pledged commitment to a stand-alone Senate repeal bill.

 

In a statement, President Obama praised the House for approving — with what he called “bipartisan support” —the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation.

 

“Moving forward with the repeal is not only the right thing to do, it will also give our military the clarity and certainty it deserves,” Obama said. “We must ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally by their country.”

 

Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokeperson, also said Defense Secretary Robert Gates is “pleased” the House has approved a standalone “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal measure.

 

“He encourages the Senate to pass the legislation this session, enabling the Department of Defense to carefully and responsibly manage a change in this policy instead of risking an abrupt change resulting from a decision in the courts,” Morrell said.

 

LGBT rights groups heralded the House passage of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and encouraged the Senate to follow suit to pass the legislation and send it to Obama’s desk.

 

Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, commended the House for approving the measure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

 

“Today the U.S. House of Representatives said, for the second time, what military leaders, the majority of our troops and 80 percent of the American public have been saying all along — the only thing that matters on the battlefield is the ability to do the job.” Solmonese said.

 

Solmonese was referring to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published Wednesday, which found that 77 percent of Americans support allowing openly gay people to serve in the armed forces.

 

The director of the OutServe, a group for gay active duty service members, also praised the House vote and called on the Senate to act.

 

“Our ability to live and work with integrity and honesty is on the line,” said the director, who goes by the acronym J.D Smith. “It now falls to the Senate to follow the House’s example and the Pentagon report’s recommendations, and right the wrong that is being done to thousands of us currently serving.”

 

Will the Senate act before year’s end?

 

Now that the House has passed the measure, eyes will turn again to the Senate to see if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will schedule a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and if 60 votes are present in the chamber for passage.

 

Anxiety over whether the Senate will address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the limited time remaining the legislative session dwindles continues to be a concern for those who are working to end the military’s gay ban.

 

In a statement to the Blade, Regan Lachapelle, a Reid spokesperson, said the majority leader intends to introduce the legislation sometime before the end of the year, but didn’t offer further details on when the Senate would take up the legislation.

 

Moving to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal seemed unlikely this week. After finishing work on extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, the Senate proceeded to debate on the START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement.

 

The Senate, for the remainder of the week, was expected to tag between debate on the treaty and a continuing resolution for funding for the U.S. government.

 

One LGBT rights advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said opposition to these measures from Republicans could sap away time that would be needed to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

 

“Both bills have hit procedural/political/substantive snags with Republican senators threatening to have them read out loud,” the activist said. “Whether or not this is a ploy to run out the clock is not known.”

 

After the START Treaty and the continuing resolution, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal would remain on the legislative calendar as well as passage of the DREAM Act, an immigration-related bill, and legislation to provide benefits to workers who helped at Ground Zero during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

 

“There is no word on when or in what order those bills would be considered,” the activist said. “There is no commitment from Senator Reid to bring ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] to the floor but the privileged message from the House creates momentum and pressure for its consideration prior to adjournment.”

 

In a news conference on Tuesday, Reid had threatened to keep the Senate in session until Jan. 4 to take up measures such as the DREAM Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

 

“Christmas is a week from Saturday,” Reid said. “I understand that.  But I hope the Republicans understand it also, because we are going to complete our work, no matter how long it takes, in this Congress. We have to do the work of the American people.”

 

But the advocate said this pledge from Reid “is largely useless” because senators whose votes would be needed for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would still leave before the session is over.

 

“He would likely lose senators like [Blanche] Lincoln and [Evan] Bayh who are not returning,” the advocate said. “If the Senate does not work this weekend, they will largely be done.”

 

Following the House vote, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD.) said during a news conference he doesn’t know when Reid will schedule the vote — even as he acknowledged that talks between House and Senate leadership have taken place.

 

“I have had conversations with Sen. Reid which indicated that we were going to take this action, and so he anticipated this action,” Hoyer said.

 

Despite these anxieties, other signs show that sufficient support exists to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if the legislation moves to the Senate floor.

 

Multiple sources have told the Blade that 60 votes are present in the Senate to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now that other legislative items such tax cuts have cleared the table.

 

At the news conference, Hoyer said he’s spoken many senators about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which has led him to believe that sufficient support exists for passage repeal.

 

“I’ve also had conversations with a number of members of the United States Senate — Republican members,” Hoyer said. “My belief is that there are the requisite number of votes in the United States both to effect cloture and passage of the legislation.”

 

Several Republicans senators — such as Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Lisa Murkowki (R-Alaska) — have come out in favor of repeal following the release of the Pentagon report.

 

On Wednesday, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) added her name to the list of senators who have come out in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

 

“After careful analysis of the comprehensive report compiled by the Department of Defense and thorough consideration of the testimony provided by the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs, I support repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law,” Snowe said in a statement.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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