Senate panel votes to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

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WASHINGTON — A Senate committee voted Thursday to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military in the first of a series of critical tests for a compromise plan to end the divisive “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

In a closed session Thursday evening, the Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed the compromise, 16-12. The measure still faces a vote in the full Senate. The House, meanwhile, was poised to vote on the compromise by Friday.

The compromise between White House and congressional negotiators would not formally lift the ban on gays until the Pentagon completes a review, due Dec. 1, and President Barack Obama and top Defense leaders certify that ending the 1993 prohibition will not affect military readiness.

Activists have pressed for congressional action, fearful that if lawmakers wait until the next legislative session to tackle the repeal, potential Republican gains in Congress this fall would make changing the law more difficult.

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By adding the compromise to a defense authorization measure, Democratic leaders hope to avoid an attempt by opponents to block the bill. To stop it, Senate Republicans would have to take the extreme step of filibustering the entire authorization measure, which sets the overall parameters of military spending.

In Thursday’s Senate committee vote, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined the panel’s Democrats in approving the repeal compromise.

Even though the compromise on gays has the blessing of the White House and top Pentagon leaders, some top military leaders remain skeptical. The uniformed heads of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps all oppose legislation to repeal the ban until the Pentagon finishes its review later this year.

“I believe that repealing the law before the completion of the review will be seen by the men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views before moving forward,” wrote Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he would prefer that Congress wait, but that he accepts the compromise. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he supports the compromise, noting the provision that prevents the repeal from taking effect until the president and Pentagon leaders give their consent.

“The language in there right now preserves my prerogative — and I believe, my responsibility — to give the best military advice,” Mullen said Wednesday, according a Pentagon news service release Thursday. “That trigger is to certify whether we should move ahead with that change, even if the law were to repeal it.”

Obama, Gates and Mullen all support ending the ban on gays serving openly. But military leaders, particularly Gates, favor implementing the repeal slowly, which the compromise language allows.

Some prominent Democrats in the House, including Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have opposed the compromise, citing concerns in the military.

Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the compromise would “breach the trust” of members of the military. If the amendment containing the compromises passes in the House, he said, he would encourage colleagues to vote against final passage of the authorization bill.

“We owe our military personnel better,” he said.

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Advocates for lifting the ban praised the move to enact a repeal now.

“The importance of this vote cannot be overstated — this is the beginning of the end of a shameful ban on open service by lesbian and gay troops that has weakened our national security,” said Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign.

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