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House Adopts ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal

The House endorsed overturning the federal law banning openly gay individuals from serving in the U.S. military, handing a second major victory in a matter of hours Thursday to gay-rights groups and other opponents of the policy.

Lawmakers voted 234-194 to adopt the proposal by Rep. Patrick Murphy to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as part of the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill.

“Arguments for keeping this policy in place are weak and outdated,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said in a statement. “To remove honorable, talented and patriotic troops from serving contradicts the American values our military fights for and our nation holds dear.”

Murphy’s amendment, which 26 Democrats opposed, would delay implementation until after a Pentagon review of the policy is complete. It would also make the repeal contingent on presidential and military certification that military readiness would not be adversely affected.

Most of the Democrats who voted against the repeal hail from conservative districts, and many are in tough re-election races.

Just before the vote, Rep. Bobby Bright said he would oppose the amendment, even though the Alabama Democrat did not necessarily oppose repeal once the Pentagon had weighed in.

“I still feel like we need to keep steady as she goes with the plan we had prepared and get the assessment,” said Bright, who faces a tough fight this fall in a district that favored John McCain in the 2008 presidential race by 26 percentage points. “Not that I’m against changing, but right now we need to have as much information as possible so we can make the best decision. … Acting now is a little premature.”

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (Mo.), who has said Congressional action should not precede the Pentagon review, was also among the Democratic opponents. He cited an April 30 letter from Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urging Congress not to act to repeal the law before the Pentagon completes its review.

Mullen said Wednesday that he was comfortable with Murphy’s amendment because it includes “very clear language” giving military leaders a final say on implementation.

During an impassioned floor speech in which he invoked the civil rights battles of the 1960s, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer made the case for repeal, calling it the next step in the quest for equality for all Americans.

“Discrimination against gays and lesbians takes a very real toll on our national security,” the Maryland Democrat said. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has caused the dismissal of 13,500 men and women who wore our uniform with honor, put their lives on the line in service to us and this great nation — and only asked to serve their country on equal terms.”

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the Armed Services panel, urged lawmakers not to “break faith” with Pentagon officials, saying lawmakers should stop “short-circuiting” the Pentagon assessment.

The Senate Armed Services Committee helped pave the way for House action earlier Thursday, when the panel voted 16-12 to incorporate the same language into its version of the defense authorization bill.

“It’s a great example of Congressional leadership,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a gay lawmaker who has been fighting to end gay discrimination for decades. “The Speaker drove this, and the Majority Leader. … It’s a very nice moment, I have to say, for the Democrats here. We’ve got health care, we’ve got financial reform. … It’s shaping up to be a very monumental Congress.”

Overturning the policy could be complicated, however, by President Barack Obama’s threat to veto the bill if it includes funding for a new engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lawmakers rejected an amendment striking the funding by a vote of 231-193 late Thursday.

Senate Republicans have vowed to fight the language repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” when the bill comes to the Senate floor, potentially before the July Fourth recess. Like their House counterparts, they argue that Congressional action should not pre-empt the Pentagon’s review. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supports a repeal.

“I think it’s premature to make a decision on that until we see the report that the military is commissioning,” said Sen. George LeMieux, a member of the Armed Services panel who voted against the repeal proposal, which the Florida Republican called “irresponsible.”

“That was the whole purpose of the report — to see how it was going to be impacting the military,” LeMieux added.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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