WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives voted 234 to 194 Thursday night to repeal the military's 17-year-old policy that prohibits gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the nation's armed forces.
The historic House vote followed the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16-12 to end former President Bill Clinton's 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military but subjects them to expulsion if their sexual orientation becomes known.
"Discrimination against gays and lesbians takes a very real toll on our national security," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said before the vote. "Many of the arguments spoken in favor of the exclusion and expulsion of gays and lesbians from our military have been heard before — when they were used to justify segregation."
Supporters of repealing the "Don't Ask" say that 13,500 service personnel have been dismissed from the armed forces under the policy. In the early stages of the Iraq war, 320 people who spoke languages like Arabic and Farsi were expelled because of their sexual orientation, Hoyer said.
The House and Senate debates occurred despite the concerns of the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, who don't want Congress to vote on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" until the Pentagon completes a study on the impact of the proposed changes by December.
However, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado on Wednesday that he was comfortable with the legislation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that she has the votes to change the policy and that lawmakers are pressing toward a vote because "it is the right thing to do."
"The compromise legislation is respectful of the fact that there is a review going on . . . about how we should move forward," Pelosi said.
The House's main business Thursday was supposed to be a debate and vote on a $760 billion defense spending bill.
Most of the talk, however, centered on an amendment by Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa. — a former Army captain who served in Iraq — that would repeal the policy, but not immediately.
Instead, the repeal would occur after the Pentagon completed its study. Also, no repeal could occur until President Barack Obama, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense all certify that repeal "will not hurt military readiness or unit cohesion."
The Obama administration said in a letter Monday that it backs Murphy's amendment, saying it "recognized the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process through a thorough understanding of their concerns, insights and suggestions."
However, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran who opposes repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," solicited letters from the four military chiefs saying that changing the policy before the Pentagon finishes its review would send the wrong message to service members.
"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, the Army chief of staff, wrote to McCain.
Opponents in Congress accused Obama and Pelosi of conducting politically motivated liberal social experimentation by trying to scrap "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — in statements that sometimes echoed past opposition to African-Americans and women in the military.
"We're saying, 'We're shoving this down your throat, we don't care,'" said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. "The military is not a social experiment. . . . Our men and women in the military deserve better."
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of three openly gay lawmakers in the 535-member Congress, noted that several nations allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
"Those who tell me that the presence of gay and lesbian members of the military undermine the effectiveness of a fighting force and undermine unit cohesion must have never heard of Israel . . . as effective a fighting force as (any) in modern times," Frank said. "So the notion that you must deny American gay and lesbian citizens their rights has no basis in reality."
While lawmakers and military officials battle over gays in the military, a Gallup poll earlier this month found that 70 percent of Americans support allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military, while 25 percent oppose it.
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