The ins and outs: Senate repeals ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Obama signs into law

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December 22, 2010
By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter

UPDATE: At approximately 9:35 this morning, President Obama signed the bill that struck down “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell.”

The so-called lame-duck session of the 111th Congress is not so lame after all.

The US Senate voted to repeal the 17-year-old, Clinton-era  ban on openly gay service on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 18.  Eight moderate Republicans crossed party lines to vote with Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and GOP senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The vote was 65 to 31 on a stand-alone repeal bill that the House of Representatives approved on Dec. 15  by a margin of 250 to 175.

Twice before cloture votes failed.  But not this time.

The bill now heads to President Obama for his signature.

Shortly after the vote,  White House  press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement. “As the President has long said, ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military, will strengthen our national security while upholding the basic equality on which this nation was founded,” Gibbs said. “The President looks forward to signing the bill into law.

So does Boston-based gay Army veteran, John Affuso, who could not have been happier with the outcome.  “I am obviously delighted that the day has come  when gay men and lesbians will be able to serve without fear of being discharged,” he said over the phone.  “I hope all the folks on active duty are heaving a slight sigh of relief  as we get closer to the day the policy disappears.”

Affuso, an attorney, said he and other gay veterans had been lobbying Sen. Brown since last spring and had met twice with his staff.  “I am glad that he kept his work and voted to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

The vote on Capitol Hill and the president’s signature are, however, only part of the process before repeal is final.  A next step requires Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and the president to certify lifting the ban will not undermine military effectiveness and combat readiness.  Then a 60-day congressional waiting period for “review” kicks in.  The soonest gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of the armed forces could serve openly is late winter or early spring.

Still, it was historic day for gay-rights activists and repeal advocates.  And a big win for President Obama, who promised the gay community he would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” during his 2008 campaign and announced a lift-the-ban game plan last January in his State of the Union Address.

“Today, America lived up to its highest ideals of freedom and equality.  Congress recognized that all men and women have the right to openly serve their country,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement.

At the same time, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, sounded an upbeat but cautionary tone.  “Gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members posted around the world are standing a little taller today,” he said.  “But they’re still very much at risk because repeal is not final.”

Sarvis went on to call on Defense Secretary Gates “to use his authority to suspend all ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ investigations during this interim period,” adding, “Even with this historic vote, service members must continue to serve in silence until repeal is final.”  As Sarvis, also an Army veteran, explained, “The bottom line: for now, gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members must remain cautiously closeted.”

Over the last several months Brown’s vote was a critical to secure the 60 votes necessary to bring cloture, thereby ending debate and enabling repeal to go before the Senate for approval.

Besides Affuso and other gay vets, MassEquality flexed its grassroots muscle to persuade Brown, even as the anti-gay Massachusetts Family Institute and Catholic Citizenship urged the senator to vote “No.”

Since March the state’s largest LGBT-rights organization worked to convince Brown.  “We delivered 2,262 postcards and 110 handwritten letters to Sen. Brown urging him to vote for repeal,” said Kara Suffrendini, executive director of MassEquality, in a press release.    “We made nearly 10,000 calls to families of veterans and other MassEquality members urging them to call the senator and ask him to support repeal.”

The final vote to repeal picked up additional Republican support.  Two senators,  Richard Burr of North Carolina and John Ensign of Nevada, joined  Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois, George Voinovich of Ohio, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska all of whom vote for cloture.  Senators Brown, Collins, and Snowe all voted for cloture and for repeal.

Log Cabin Republicans praised the bi-partisan effort. “The  Senate voted finally, with strong Republican support, to end a policy which has burdened our armed services for far too long, depriving our nation of the talent, training and hard-won battle experience of thousands of patriotic Americans,” said R. Clarke Cooper, the organization’s executive director, in a press release.

Log Cabin also issued statements from Senators Brown and Collins.  “This is an historic moment.  Like our closest allies, the United States Armed Forces should welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country,” said Collins. “And, I agree with Defense Secretary Gates that it is critical that the issue is decided by Congress, not the courts.”For his part, Brown said, “I have been in the military for 31 years and counting, and have served as a subordinate and as an officer,” adding, “As a legislator, I have spent a significant amount of time on military issues. During my time of service, I have visited our injured troops at Walter Reed and have attended funerals of our fallen heroes. When a soldier answers the call to serve, and risks life or limb, it has never mattered to me whether they are gay or straight. My only concern has been whether their service and sacrifice is with pride and honor.”

But Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, would have none or it. “ Senate Republicans including Senator Brown made a vow not to vote on ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ until the budget was resolved, and they broke trust with the people,” Mineau said in a statement  “In doing so, they not only have put special interests above fiscal interests but also have put our troops at risk during wartime.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a key player in President Obama’s Pentagon and congressional strategy, however, pledged to implement repeal effectively.  “I welcome today’s vote by the Senate clearing the way for a legislative repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,’” he said, adding “Once this legislation is signed into law by the president, the Department of Defense will immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully.” 

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