Historic Senate vote: Congress repeals 17-year-old ban on gays in military


The U.S. Senate approved a bill Saturday, Dec. 18, to repeal the 17-year-old law banning openly gay people from serving in the military. The roll call vote on the measure, which came to the Senate Wednesday from the House, was 65 to 31. It had passed the House 250 to 175.

Because both bills are identical, it now moves to the president’s desk for his signature.

The White House issued a statement, calling the vote “an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security.”

The Senate vote to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) ban, which came at about 3:20 Saturday, seemed almost anti-climactic. It came three hours after a procedural vote (known as cloture) to send the bill to the Senate floor. The procedural vote was 63 to 33, with one senator not voting.

Two previous motions on cloture –- one in September and one last week — had failed.But this time, six moderate Republicans voted for sending the bill to the floor and for repeal: Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and George Voinovich of Ohio.

On previous cloture votes, they had stood by a Republican Party demand that the Senate not consider “any legislative item until the Senate has acted to fund the government and we have prevented the tax increase….”

Both the House and Senate passed a Republican-sought tax cut extension earlier in the week have passed a continuing resolution to fund the government until final appropriations bills can be approved.

Aubrey Sarvis, head of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, issued a statement immediately after the cloture motion passed, praising the vote and asking that Defense Secretary Robert Gates “use his authority to suspend” the ban until such time as the repeal can be certified and implemented, as called for in the legislation.

The first of two votes on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal came after more than an hour of vigorous and sometimes emotional debate Saturday morning. Democrats urged their colleagues to “do the right thing” and repeal the policy, and Republicans chided Democrats for not allowing for any amendments and bringing up the issue at a bad time.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) went to the Senate floor around 9:30 Saturday morning, acknowledging that his ability to vote had received a lot of attention in the previous 48 hours because he is scheduled to have prostate surgery on Monday. Some political observers had speculated Wyden might not be available for the repeal vote, if it was postponed until Monday.

Wyden spoke strongly for repeal of DADT, saying it was forcing the military to turn away and discharge many experts in such crucial languages as Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese. But more importantly, said Wyden, the ban is “wrong” and “never should have been perpetuated” against gay servicemembers in the first place.

Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) spoke in favor of ending the policy and quoted the words of a letter published December 16 in the Washington Post by an active duty infantry Marine Corps captain, Nathan Cox. Cox said he is not gay but that, in his experience, “the things that separate Marines in civilian life fade into obscurity on the battlefield.”

“There, only one thing matters,” wrote Cox. “Can you do your job?”

“It is time for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to join our other mistakes in the dog-eared chapters of history textbooks,” read Senator Udall from the letter. “We all bleed red, we all love our country, we are all Marines. In the end, that’s all that matters.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-San Francisco) said the policy is unconstitutional and “does more harm than good.”

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led the filibuster against repeal of DADT, claimed repeal would cause harm, and he repeatedly suggested it would lead to more soldiers losing limbs and lives.

“This debate is not about the broader social issues that are being discussed in our society,” said McCain, “but what is in the best interest in our national security and our military during a time of war.”

The primary objections of Republicans were about timing and their inability to amend the bill.

Democrats “know they can’t get [passage] next January 5 … that’s why they’re jamming this through now,” said McCain, referring to the fact that Republicans last month won a majority in the House and an increased number of Republicans in the Senate.

McCain also said he filed two amendments to the DADT repeal bill but that, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had closed out any amendments beyond those he wished to consider, McCain’s amendments could not be heard.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also criticized Reid’s blocking of amendments, even while acknowledging that, years ago, it was Democrats who were criticizing Republicans for doing the same thing.

McConnell said “liberal interest groups have more influence over military personnel policy than the senior enlisted leaders of the Army and Marine Corps.” He said he wanted to amend the bill to enable service chiefs to participate in the bill’s certification process.

The process for implementation of repeal calls for the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to certify the repeal can be implemented without harming military readiness.

After that, there is a 60-day waiting period during which time Congress could presumably “review” the implementation plan. Legal scholar Nan Hunter said the 60-day period is essentially “just a countdown” period, though “Congress could always re-enter the picture.” But Hunter noted that an effort to undo repeal “obviously” does not have the votes.

Reid, reacting to McConnell’s complaints, smiled and shook his head, and reminded listeners that the Senate has been “stymied, stopped, and stunned by the procedural roadblocks of this Republican minority.”

But McCain essentially conceded defeat during his remarks, saying he believed repeal would pass Saturday and that “there will be high fives all over the liberal bastions around the country.

“But don’t think it won’t be at great cost,” said McCain. “….We are doing great damage.”

Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) said it’s “a given” that gays and lesbians serve admirably in the military, but he said allowing them to serve openly now “has the potential for increasing the risk of harm and death to our men and women who are serving in combat today.”

“Should it be done at some point in time?” asked Chambliss. “Maybe so. But in the middle of a military conflict is not the time to do it.”

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) seemed uncomfortable with the couching of repeal in terms of civil rights.

“Some will say this is a civil rights issue of our time, the day has come, we need to move forward as a nation,” said Graham. “The Marine Corps does not have that view.”

Graham, and others, accused Democrats as simply playing politics with both DADT repeal and the DREAM immigration act, trying to pacify specific constituencies.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip of the Senate, said, referring to both the DREAM Act vote and the DADT repeal bill, “This is our moment in history to show our courage.”

And Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rejected claims that the repeal has come as a political ploy to court gay votes.

“Some have argued that this is social engineering, or this is partisan, even though this change is supported by the overwhelming majorities of the American people. They are grossly mistaken,” said Levin. He reminded the Senate that the first ground-unit casualty of the Iraq war, Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, lost his right leg from a land mine. Captain Jonathan Hopkins, he said, earned three Bronze Stars, “including one for valor in combat.” And yet both were discharged under the DADT policy, said Levin.

“We cannot let these patriots down,” said Levin. “Their suffering should end. It will end with the passage of this bill.”

In his statement, President Obama said he is “absolutely convinced” that repeal will “underscore the professionalism of our troops as the best led and best trained fighting force the world has ever known.”

In a bit of historic irony, the procedural vote was the same as in 1993, when Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) sought to head off passage of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban by offering an amendment to delete it from the defense authorization bill to which it had been attached. Boxer’s amendment failed 33 to 63.

Senators who did not vote on the procedural roll call Saturday were Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and three Republicans: Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Orrin Hatch of Utah. With four senators not voting, the motion would have passed with only 58 votes.

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