In a historic action, the U.S. Senate on Saturday passed legislation that would end the 17-year-old law prohibiting open gays from serving in the U.S. military.
Early in the day, the Senate voted 63-33 to invoke cloture on the legislation that would end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to move it to the floor. Later in the afternoon, the chamer approved the legislation by a vote of 65-31, effectively sending the measure to President Obama’s desk.
Clearing the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture was the last significant hurdle for the bill on its path to passage and enactment into law.
For the cloture vote, six Republicans voted in the affirmative. They include Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an original co-sponsor of the bill, as well as Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Scott Brown (R-Mass) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Each had indicated prior to the vote that they support the bill when it came to the floor.
Additional GOP support for the legislation came from Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio). Three Republicans didn’t vote: Sens. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Following the cloture vote, Voinovich told reporters he voted in the affirmative because he believes the U.S. military should accept Americans who are qualified to serve.
“If people are not qualified to be in service because of their sexual orientation, then we ought to say, ‘You can’t get in,'” he said. “But if we know that they are qualified, then we ought not to have them lying [about] who they are [under] ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ It just is inconsistent with common sense.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of the repeal legislation, told the Washington Blade following the vote that he wasn’t suprised by Kirk or Voinovich’s votes because they privately assured him they would vote in the affirmative earlier in the week.
“For their own reasons, they didn’t want to announce it, but they were true to their word — God bless them,” Lieberman said. “So, six Republicans was great.”
Lieberman praised the bipartisan nature with which the Senate passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a conversation with reporters following the vote.
“There’s been a lot of difficult times in the last couple years because it’s so partisan to get anything done.,” Lieberman said. “Here we are coming together — and it was bipartisan. We wouldn’t have done it without the Republicans and we got something really good passed, so I feel good about it.”
For the vote for final passage, two Republicans switched their “no” votes on cloture to “yes”: Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.).
On the Democratic side, all members who were present voted in favor of cloture and final passage, but Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) didn’t vote at either time.
Earlier this month, Manchin voted against the motion to proceed on major defense legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language. His office didn’t immediately respond to Blade’s request to comment on why he was absent.
Gay rights supporters were concerned that Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) would vote “no,” but he voted in the affirmative both for cloture and final passage along with nearly all of his Democratic colleagues.
The Senate invoked cloture to proceed with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation after a vote failed on moving forward with the DREAM Act, an immigration-related bill, 55-41.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the cloture vote shows that Congress has “recognized that all men and women have the right to openly serve their country.”
Solmonese also noted that the Senate was able to move “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation past its most significant hurdle after many observers believed efforts to pass repeal this year were dead.
“Plenty of people had already planned the funeral for this legislation,” Solmonese said. “Today, we pulled out a victory from what was almost certain defeat just a few days ago.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, called the vote a “historic step forward for this country” and said it “will very likely be a life-changing moment for gay and lesbian troops.”
“While we still have a long road ahead, including a final passage vote, the certification process, and a yet-to-be-determined implementation period, those who defend our freedom while living in fear for their careers will finally breathe a sigh of relief tonight, and those who have fallen victim to this policy in years past will finally begin to see true closure and redemption on the horizon,” Nicholson said.
The U.S. House earlier this week approved identical legislation, so when the Senate votes to approve final passage of the bill, the bill will head to President Obama’s desk.
Following the cloture vote, Lt. Col Victor Fehrenbach, an Air Force pilot who’s facing discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” told the Washington Blade he was “overwhelmed” that the Senate finally took action to end the military’s gay ban.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen to be honest with you — at least not for a few years,” Fehrenbach said. “As soon as I heard my senator vote — Sen. Voinovich — I knew that we were over the 61 mark and I was pretty emotional over a while there.”
Fehrenbach said he felt “overwhelming happiness” not just for himself but for the estimated 66,000 other gay people serving in the armed forces.
“I’ll still be in limbo, but I know now that I’ll be able to retire in October, so it’s a great feeling to know that this is coming to end — that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
In a statement White House Press Secretary Robert Gates confirmed Obama intends to sign the legislation passed by the Senate into law.
“As the president has long said, ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military, will strengthen our national security while upholding the basic equality on which this nation was founded,” Gibbs said. “The president looks forward to signing the bill into law.”
Gates called on to stop discharges
Now that legislative action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is complete, increased attention is being placed on the Obama administration to issue an executive order barring further discharges until repeal is implemented.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, renewed his call for such an order during a news conference after the Senate invoked cloture on the legislation.
“During this limbo interim period, I respectfully call upon the secretary of defense — Secretary Gates — to use his existing authority to suspend all investigations and all discharges until the law is finally repealed,” Sarvis said.
The SLDN head said such a move is necessary from the Obama administration because the legislation still has to make its way to the Obama desk, the president and Pentagon leaders have to certify that repeal can happen and a 60-day waiting process has to take place.
Gay advocates — including Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese — have been calling on President Obama to issue an order stopping discharges since the start of his administration.
At the news conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he supports the idea of Gates issues an order to suspend discharges as the repeal legislation heads to the president’s desk.
Senate Armed Services Committtee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also told reporters following the conference he favors such a move from Gates.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wouldn’t issue such an order until he can certify that the U.S. military is ready for repeal.
“It is therefore important that our men and women in uniform understand that while today’s historic vote means that this policy will change, the implementation and certification process will take an additional period of time,” Gates said. “In the meantime, the current law and policy will remain in effect.”
A White House spokesperson didn’t respond on short notice to comment on the matter.
In October, Gates issued new guidance limiting the discharge authority for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the militaries service secretaries in cooperation with the Pentagon’s general counsel and the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. According to the Associated Press, since that time, no discharges have taken place under the law.
Senators debate gay ban
Prior to the votes, senators on the floor spoke out passionately both in favor and against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Opponents of repeal said the timing wasn’t right for Congress to act on ending the law as the U.S. military engaged in operations overseas, while those advocating for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” said all able bodies — including gay service members — were needed to confront these threats.
Levin disputed the assertions of those who would call supporting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal a partisan vote and noted polls showing an “overwhelming majority” supports ending the law.
“I’m not here for partisan reasons,” Levin said. “I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now in Afghanistan and Iraq and other places for this country.”
Levin also noted that a provision in the legislation mandates that repeal won’t take effect until the president, defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the U.S. military is ready for repeal.
“Secretary Gates has assured everybody that he is not going to certify that the military is ready for repeal until he is satisfied with the advice of the service chiefs that we had, in fact, mitigated, if not eliminated to the extent possible, risks to combat readiness to unit cohesion and effectiveness,” Levin said.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said while repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may lead to “high-fives all over the liberal bastions of America,” an end of the statute would threaten military recruitment and battle effectiveness.
“We are doing great damage, and could possibly, and probably — as the commandant of the Marine Corps said, and I’ve been told literally thousands of members of the military — harm the battle effectiveness, which is so vital to the support, to the survival of our young men and women in the military,” McCain said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an opponent of repeal, invoked Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos suggestion earlier this week that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal could be a “distraction” that would lead to the loss of Marines’ lives on the battlefield.
“Some will say this is a civil rights issue of time,” Graham said. “The day has come. We need to move forward as a nation. The Marine Corps does not have that view.”
Graham railed against the decision of Senate leadership to prohibit senators from offering any amendments to the legislation.
“To those senators who will take the floor today and announce this as a major advancement of civil rights in America, please let it be said that you’re doing it in a fashion that those who have a different view cannot offer one amendment,” Graham said. “Does that matter? Apparently not.”
Reid had “filled the tree” prior to the vote to prohibit any senators from offering amendments to the legislation. Amending the bill would have sent the bill back to the House and could have killed the measure.