"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal Hopes Crash And Burn

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The Senate — for the second time this fall — blocked an effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Thursday afternoon. The move all but kills any chance of over-turning the 17-year old ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military for the foreseeable future.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized Republican opponents of the change, who were able to thwart Democratic efforts to bring up the proposed repeal for a vote as part of next year’s defense bill. “Repealing would make our military stronger — it doesn’t make America safer to discharge troops with critically-needed skills, and that is exactly what has happened,” the Nevada Democrat said. “The other side may feel passionately that our military should sanction discrimination based on sexual orientation, but they’re clearly in the minority.”

While the GOP did not have the 51 votes needed to strip the repeal proposal from the defense bill, they were able to corral enough votes to block consideration of the entire defense bill. That has left a military pay raise — as well as needed weapons for the wars — hostage to the impasse, Reid said. The 57-40 procedural vote was three short of the 60 needed move to debate on the overall defense bill — and the gay ban. Not only does the vote spell the end for trying to lift the ban any time soon — next year’s GOP-controlled House will be less hospitable to such a change — but it also means the Pentagon will probably be funded under a “continuing resolution” that simply continues current spending levels.

“This was a major failure on the part of the Senate to simply do its job and pass an annual defense authorization bill,” said Alexander Nicholson, of the pro-repeal Servicemembers United, and a former Army interrogator who was discharged under the policy. “Politics prevailed over responsibility today, and now more than one million American service members, including tens of thousands of gay and lesbian troops, are worse off as a result.”

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a congressional slap at the Clinton White House’s impertinence to let openly gay men and women serve in uniform without ensuring lawmakers — or men and women in uniform — were ready for such a change. But that was back in 1993, nearly a generation ago. Back then, only 44 percent of the public supported openly gay men and women in uniform. It’s now supported by 75 percent, according to a Washington Post poll. Things had looked good for ending the ban until recently. In February, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, declared the policy obsolete. Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates eased its enforcement, followed by the House voting 234-194 to end it.

While the Pentagon’s recently released survey of troops showed that 70 percent of them didn’t think ending the ban would be a big deal, front-line combat troops were far more leery of such a change. That was the glue that let anti-repeal senators stick to their guns.

Before President Clinton sent shudders through the military with his plan to let gay men and lesbian serve openly, the bar was simply a presidential decision. But determined to teach the Arkansas whippersnapper a lesson, lawmakers passed what came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” No longer would recruits be asked if they were gay (“don’t ask”) — and barred from joining if they said they were. They could serve so long as they kept their mouths shut about their private lives (“don’t tell”). It was a crude compromise, which still allowed the military to kick out 14,000 troops since its passage, including more than 400 last year while the nation was waging two wars.

But since Gates recently tightened the rules for kicking out gay troops even more — now a politically-appointed Pentagon civilian leader has to approve each discharge — the number being let go has dropped to a trickle. The Palm Center, a think tank affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara, released an analysis today showing that 87 percent of the allied troops serving alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan allow gays to serve openly. “This Pentagon data shows once more that American troops serve alongside openly gay British, Canadian and Australian troops every day in Afghanistan,” said Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin. “The facts on the ground, in combat, speak for themselves.”