WASHINGTON — For the second time this year the House voted to dismantle the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, giving the Senate a final shot in the waning days of this Congress at changing a law requiring thousands of uniformed gays to hide their sexual identity.
The strong 250-175 House vote Wednesday propels the issue to the Senate, where supporters of repeal say they have the votes but perhaps not the time to get the bill to the floor. It could be the last chance for some time to end the 1993 law that forbids recruiters from asking about sexual orientation and troops from acknowledging that they are gay.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they are committed to bringing the bill to the floor before Congress adjourns for the year. But they are challenged by opposition from some Republicans and a daunting agenda that includes finishing work on legislation to fund the government and ratifying a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
No time has been set for a Senate vote on repealing "don't ask, don't tell." Failure to overturn the policy this year could relegate the issue to the back burner next year when Republicans, who are far less supportive of allowing openly gay individuals to serve in the military, take over the House and gain strength in the Senate.
President Barack Obama, in a statement Wednesday night, said he applauded the House vote. In reiterating his support for ending the ban, he pointed to backing for repeal from the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Moving forward with the repeal is not only the right thing to do, it will also give our military the clarity and certainty it deserves," Obama said. "We must ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally by their country."
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in a statement after the House vote that Defense Secretary Robert Gates encourages the Senate to lift the ban and thus enable the Defense Department "to carefully and responsibly manage a change in this policy instead of risking an abrupt change resulting from a decision in the courts."
Last May the House voted 234-194 in favor of repeal legislation as part of a larger defense bill. The measure has stalled twice in the Senate, where Republicans have objected to taking up the defense bill laded with contentious issues, including "don't ask, don't tell."
"Now is the time for us to act," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday, and "close the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation."
Gaveling the end of the vote was Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of the House's few openly gay members. Frank, in his floor speech, said it was "bigoted nonsense" that "the presence of someone like me will so destabilize our brave young men and women that they will be unable to do their duty."
"This vote," said Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., the Iraq war veteran who sponsored the bill, "is about whether we're going to continue telling people willing to die for our freedoms that they need to lie in order to do so."
Many Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, argue that it would be a mistake for the military to undergo a major cultural change while the nation is fighting two wars.
Implementation of any new policy should begin "when our singular focus is no longer on combat operations or preparing units for combat," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
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