"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Deja Vu

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The House voted 250 to 175 Wednesday night to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Didn’t they do that back in May?

Freedom, atop the U.S. Capitol

Well, as is usually the case in the capital — and in the capitol — kind of. May’s 234 to 194 vote was an amendment, repealing the 17-year old law banning openly gay men and women from serving in the military, to the 2011 defense policy bill. But because that entire bill is now stranded in Congress – and may not be passed, especially with that controversial amendment attached – pro-repeal advocates in both houses have created a so-called stand-alone bill whose only purpose is to end the gay ban.

Now that the House has passed that streamlined legislation, action pivots to the Senate, where gay-rights advocates hope the measure can be voted on before the Senate’s lame duck session ends in the coming days. The House vote was largely along partisan lines, with the 15 Democrats voting against repeal matched by 15 Republicans voting for it.

It’s a last-ditch effort to salvage a campaign promise made by then-Senator Barack Obama to end the ban. After a slow start during Obama’s first year in the White House, momentum picked up early this year when Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, endorsed repeal. But things bogged down following May’s House vote, which upset Pentagon leaders who wanted a troop survey completed first. The poll, released two weeks ago,  generally supported ending the ban, but contained doubts about the move from front-line troops. That gave Senate Republicans the cover they needed to thwart a vote on the entire defense bill, including repeal.

The House vote Wednesday once again turned into a partisan taffy-pull. Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee grumbled in a letter to top congressional Democrats that it was “unconscionable” for lawmakers to take up the issue before dealing with the overall defense bill – especially “in a time of war.” But Rep. Barney Frank, a gay Democrat from Massachusetts, declared the bill’s stand-alone nature “strip(s) away any excuse” for putting off a vote on repeal. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “by voting again, it is my hope that we will encourage the Senate to take long-overdue action.”

The bill now heads to the Senate as a so-called “privileged bill,” meaning it can get to the floor more quickly than normal legislation. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine declared Wednesday that she would vote for repeal, so long as the tax-cut bill passes first. She is the fourth GOP senator to back an end to the ban, theoretically meaning there are 61 votes for it – enough to prevent a filibuster by opponents.