Senate Blocks Repeal of Ban on Gays in U.S. Military

Don't Ask Don't Tell
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. Sen. John McCain speak to reporters before going to vote on cloture for the defense authorization bill September 21, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Senate failed to invoke cloture falling short of the 60 votes needed to begin debate on a bill that includes the policy on gays in the military. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senate Democrats were thwarted in their pre-election bid to pass legislation allowing repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

The 56-43 vote was short of the 60 needed to advance a defense measure containing the repeal. Republicans objected to including the gays-in-military language and an immigration provision sought by Majority Leader Harry Reid. The bill, which the Senate likely won’t address again until after the Nov. 2 elections, would set policy for $726 billion in defense spending for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

President Barack Obama pledged in his January 2010 State of the Union address to lift the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and the Defense Department is conducting a review of how ending the ban would be implemented. Reid, of Nevada, said the bill would repeal the ban if the president and Pentagon “certify it will have no negative effect on the military.”

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said that, while she supports lifting the ban, she opposed proceeding with the measure because Reid planned to limit the number of amendments offered by Republicans.

“If an individual is willing to put on the uniform of our country to be deployed in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan,” Americans should be expressing gratitude, “not trying to exclude them from serving,” Collins said.

“We’re disappointed in not being able to proceed,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters, saying the president believes the ban “is a fundamentally unfair policy.”

‘All About Elections’

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, criticized Democrats’ efforts to act on the military’s gay policy and immigration as part of the defense bill. He and other Republicans said Reid was pushing the immigration proposal to help spur Hispanic turnout in Nevada, where he is up for re-election.

“This is a cynical ploy to try to galvanize and energize their base,” McCain told reporters before the vote.

Servicemembers United, which says it is the nation’s largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, expressed ‘deep disappointment’’ and blamed Reid. Votes in favor of the plan were lined up until the majority leader opted for an “uncommon” procedure that eroded support and “guaranteed the vote’s failure,” the group said in a statement.

Permanent Residents

The immigration provision would allow children of undocumented immigrants who arrive in the U.S. before age 16 and remain at least five years to become permanent residents after graduating from high school or serving in the military.

“This isn’t the end of this,” Reid said after the vote. Republicans “didn’t have the courage to allow us to have a vote” on the immigration measure, he said. Reid had said last week that even if the Senate took the bill up now, it wouldn’t complete work on the measure until after the election.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters the Senate should debate the defense measure without “all these extraneous issues.”

The defense measure sets policy for spending in separate appropriations legislation, which includes $159 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Legislation that passed the House on May 28 contains a similar repeal of the military gay ban.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he would push to bring the defense measure up again during a lame-duck session after the elections.

Policy Changes

The measure includes changes in policy on health care, weapons, purchasing rules and policies toward outside contractors in Afghanistan, he said. A failure to pass it would mark the first time Congress hasn’t enacted a defense policy bill in more than 40 years, Levin said.

“We wouldn’t be doing what we want to do in a whole host of areas,” Levin told reporters.

The 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, enacted under former President Bill Clinton, allows gay men and lesbians to serve in the military only if they don’t reveal their sexual orientation and it isn’t otherwise disclosed.

Collins said more than 13,000 troops have been forced to leave the military under the policy. It has cost almost $200 million to train new troops to replace them, she said.

The military discharged 259 men and 169 women last year under the law. As many as 66,000 gay men and women may be serving in the U.S. military, about 2.2 percent of all personnel, including 13,000 on active duty, according to a study by the Williams Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

Gates, Mullen

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they support repeal of the ban, though they favored the completion of the Pentagon review first.

The review, including a survey of military personnel attitudes on the issue, is scheduled to be finished in December. In the meantime, Gates said in March that the Pentagon would ease enforcement of the rules, including tightening standards for “credible evidence” needed to open a case.

The Senate defense bill would omit funds for General Electric Co.’s backup engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The House voted in May for $485 million to keep the GE program alive over the opposition of the Defense Department, which says it isn’t needed.

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