Saturday, December 18, 2010

Senate takes step to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell

Senate takes step to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell'

Six Republicans join Democrats in a 63-33 vote to advance the bill that would allow gays to openly serve in the military. A formal vote on the Senate floor still lies ahead.

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Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — The Senate was poised on Saturday to allow gays to openly serve in the military after supporters overcame a procedural hurdle to bring the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" to the Senate floor.

In a 63-33 vote, the Senate passed the cloture motion. A formal repeal vote still lies ahead, but the outcome seemed assured after six Republicans joined with Democrats to advance the bill, which required 60 votes.

The six Republican senators who voted with the majority were: Scott Brown, of Massachusetts; Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine; Mark Kirk of Illinois; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and George Voinovich of Ohio. Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, the only Democrat to oppose repeal, did not vote.

President Obama has made the repeal of the 1993 law one of his priorities in the lame-duck congressional session. The House passed the bill this week 250 to 174.

"The Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend," President Obama said in a prepared statement." By ending 'don't ask, don't tell," no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.

"It is time to close this chapter in our history," he stated."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. It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly. I urge the Senate to send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law."

When passed by the Senate and signed by the president, the repeal would allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military without fear of prosecution for their sexual orientation. More than 13,500 people have been dismissed from the military under the law.

"Don't ask, don't tell is wrong," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in his opening remarks Saturday morning. "I don't care who you love. If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn't have to hide who you are. You ought to be able to serve."

Many Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), opposed the repeal, arguing it should not be considered during the current time of war. That position is backed by chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps who have warned Congress that repeal could pose problems if the law is overturned.

Speaking on the floor before the procedural vote, McCain, the GOP's presidential candidate in 2008, acknowledged that Republicans didn't have the vote to block repeal. He derisively noted that liberals, who lacked military experience, would "high five" across America.

McCain and other Republicans argued that the repeal should not be pushed on troops during a time of war. "They will do what is asked of them," McCain said of the military, "but don't think there won't be a great cost."

Republicans also cited questions among some military leaders, particularly, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who argued that repeal could cost lives.

"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," he told reporters this week.

But other military officials including, Adm. Mike Mullen and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the fear of disruption is overblown.

Proponents of the repeal made two basic arguments, one involving civil rights and the other military preparedness.

"This is a historic vote for equality, civil rights and a stronger America," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "This is a continuation of our nation's march toward full equality for all."

Democrats also cited a recently released Pentagon study that found that two-thirds of the military didn't think changing the law would have much of an effect.

Once the measure becomes law, Obama and military chiefs will have to certify that the change wouldn't hurt the ability of troops to fight and there would also be a 60-day waiting period. The actual elimination of "don't ask, don't tell," which dates back to the Clinton administration, could take as long as a year.

Still there was happiness among supporters, some of whom were in the Senate gallery to watch the vote.

"This has been a long fought battle, but this failed and discriminatory law will now be history," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

The Senate began its rare weekend session Saturday morning poised to battle over two of the most contentious social issues in this lame-duck session, "don't ask, don't tell" and immigration. Earlier, the Senate voted down an effort to bring the Dream Act to the floor.
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