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Senate Votes to Repeal Ban on Gays in Military

The U.S. Senate voted today to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on military service by openly gay men and women.

The 65-31 vote sent the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature. Before the new policy takes effect, the Defense Department must draft regulations and the president and Pentagon leaders must certify that the change won’t hurt the nation’s war efforts.

Obama, who promised to repeal the 1993 law, praised the Senate action as a civil-rights victory.

“It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed,” he said in a written statement. “It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was considered a compromise when first passed. It allowed gays to serve if their sexual orientation were kept private.

More than 14,000 service members have been discharged for being gay since 1993, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay-rights advocacy group.

Righting a Wrong

“It’s time to right a wrong and put the military in line with the best of American values,” said Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who usually sides with Democrats on domestic issues.

Critics, including Arizona Republican John McCain and the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, said repealing the ban would be a threat to “good order and discipline” in the military in a time of war. They asked that any change be delayed.

Today’s final vote followed a procedural vote that overcame efforts by opponents to block the legislation.

“There’ll be high-fives all over the liberal bastions of America” with the bill’s passage, said McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war. “I am confident our military, the best in the world, will salute and do the best they can. They will do what is asked of them, but don’t think it won’t be at great cost.”

First Casualty

“The first casualty in the war in Iraq was a gay soldier,” Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a Michigan Democrat, said today. “We cannot let these patriots down.”

Passage of the repeal, first approved by the House in May, was a win for Obama just weeks after his self-described “shellacking” in November’s mid-term elections. A White House statement today after the final vote said the president “looks forward” to signing the legislation into law.

Eliminating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law doesn’t immediately change Pentagon policy. Under the legislation, the ban would remain in effect until 60 days after Obama and Pentagon leaders certify that the Defense Department is ready for the new policy.

Defense officials have not said how long that process could take. A Pentagon task force, in a report issued last month, outlined numerous revisions to training, military education and regulations that would be needed.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates pledged today in a statement to “immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposely.”

Two senators said they expect the time required will be “months not years.”

‘Sequenced Implementation’

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a Democrat and former Navy secretary who voted to advance the bill, said today he received written confirmation from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the repeal would have “a sequenced implementation of the provisions for different units in the military.”

Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had urged Congress to repeal the policy so the Defense Department could make the change without a sudden intervention by the courts. A federal trial judge in September ruled the ban unconstitutional and the case is under appeal.

Mullen praised the Senate vote in his own statement today, saying, “We will be a better military as a result.”

Bipartisan Support

The final vote showed bipartisan support for repeal, as eight Republicans broke ranks with their party to join all attending Democrats in favor of the bill. One Democrat, newly elected Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and three Republicans didn’t vote.

With enough votes assured to claim victory, Senate Democrats joined gay-rights leaders at a press conference to cheer the expected result later today.

“America made history today,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We are grateful America recognized we should be able to serve our nation openly and honestly.”

Repealing the policy enjoys public support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 77 percent of Americans say gay and lesbian service members who disclose their sexual orientation should continue serving.

Prospects for passage of the repeal appeared in jeopardy for months. The House had approved repealing the ban in May as part of annual defense legislation that authorizes all military programs.

No Excuses

Today’s Senate vote came on a separate version of the repeal passed by the House on Dec. 15. Representative Barney Frank, a gay Democrat from Massachusetts, said the maneuver helped “strip away any excuse” for not voting on the repeal.

Among those visiting the Senate today to witness the vote was Mike Almy, a gay former Air Force officer who led a team of 200 men and women in the Iraq war. Almy said he was fired after Air Force officers discovered private e-mail he had written to loved ones, including someone he had dated.

“There is nothing I want more than to resume my career,” Almy said at a news conference hailing the vote. “I look forward to wearing the uniform again as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.”

The eight Republicans who voted in favor of repeal were Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Susan Collins of Maine, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, George Voinovich of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

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