Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 6:57 PM
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to end "don't ask, don't tell," the controversial policy barring openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military.
The measure, which passed 16 to 12, includes a provision ensuring that no change would take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study about its impact on troops, due to Congress Dec. 1.
The House was scheduled to vote late Thursday or Friday on an identical measure. Lawmakers there expect it to be approved, and the full Senate would vote on it next month.
The provision, which lawmakers are attaching to a $726 billion defense funding bill, would take effect only if the Defense Department study determines that changing the policy would not affect the military's ability to fight wars or recruit soldiers.
The legislation is a compromise between the administration and gay rights activists, who have long opposed "don't ask, don't tell" as effectively allowing one of America's most powerful institutions to discriminate. Activists pushed President Obama and congressional Democrats on this issue, leading Obama to endorse this approach rather than wait for the Pentagon to finish its study.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have endorsed this approach while emphasizing the importance of the study. Mullen has said he supports repeal, calling it "the right thing to do" in testimony before Congress in February.
But many Republicans on Capitol Hill oppose changing the policy, arguing that Congress should wait until the Pentagon completes its study before acting. The heads of the four uniformed services have also said Congress should wait for the completion of the Pentagon study.
"I remain convinced that it is critically important to get a better understanding of where our Soldiers and Families are on this issue, and what the impacts on readiness and unit cohesion might be, so that I can provide informed military advice to the President and the Congress," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, wrote in a letter. "I also believe that repealing the law before the completion of the review will be seen by the men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views before moving forward."
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he worried that the change would "negatively impact our readiness."
Two major veterans service organizations also oppose the Democratic effort.
"We believe changing a major social policy in the middle of two wars would be a mistake and distraction," said American Legion National Commander Clarence E. Hill.
Duane J. Miskulin, national commander of AMVETS, said Congress should wait to act until after the Pentagon completes its study of how to implement a repeal. "We can't simply overturn 'don't ask, don't tell' and deal with any unintended consequences after the fact while trying to fight two wars," Miskulin said.
But supporters anticipate that 20 to 30 percent of service members discharged under the ban may reenlist. Mike Almy, a former Air Force officer who was discharged in 2006, said he's still medically and physically qualified to serve.
"I come from a military family. This is all I want to do. I dedicated my whole life to being an officer," said Almy, who has worked as a defense contractor since his discharge and is also active with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group pushing for repeal.
The group reminded members this week that the gay ban remains in place until after the Pentagon completes its study. "Lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members remain vulnerable to being discharged on the basis of their sexual orientation," read an e-mail sent to SLDN's 80,000 members. "While Congress is taking steps to enact a roadmap for full repeal and the implementation of open service, it is not safe to come out or serve openly until the process of repeal is complete."
The push from Democrats comes as public opinion has changed dramatically on the issue. In 1993, 44 percent of Americans supported allowing people who are openly gay to serve in the military. Today, 75 percent of Americans support that idea, according to a recent Washington Post poll.
Any change is unlikely to happen until next year at the earliest. After the completion of the study, Pentagon officials have said it could take several months until they are prepared to fully integrate gays into the armed forces as they consider such issues as whether gay and straight troops could be forced to share housing and whether the military would be required to extend benefits to same-sex partners.
Staff writer Craig Whitlock, researcher Alice Crites and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.