WASHINGTON (BP)--Hoping to put pressure on the Senate with less than three weeks remaining in the session, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a stand-alone bill Wednesday that would repeal the military's ban on open homosexuality.
By a vote of 250-175, the House sent the bill to the Senate, which has seen Republicans successfully filibuster the issue twice this year. The bill is part of a new lame duck strategy by House and Senate Democrats to push through a stand-alone bill repealing the policy commonly called Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Previously, the strategy involved trying to pass a repeal as part of an amendment to the defense authorization bill -- a bill that was blocked by the Senate GOP Dec. 9.
The new strategy is on a fast track. New members of the House and Senate will be sworn in and Republicans will take control of the House Jan. 4, after which a repeal effort will be all but dead.
The House previously passed a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell as part of the defense authorization act.
"By acting again, it is my hope that we will encourage the Senate to take long overdue action," outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., said during floor debate.
Supporters of the current policy warn that repealing it would harm military readiness, cohesion, privacy and recruitment, as well as the religious liberty of those in the military whose opposition to homosexual conduct is based on the Bible.
The bill's prospects in the Senate, which has a crowded end-of-the-year schedule, are unclear. Even though it apparently has the 50 votes needed to pass if it makes it to the floor, it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Senate Democratic leaders still hope to pass an omnibus spending bill and the START nuclear arms treaty -- two front-burner issues for the White House.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R.-Calif., helped lead Republican House opposition during floor debate. He also criticized Democratic leaders for holding the vote before the House could hold hearings on a recent Pentagon study on the issue.
"Three of four of the service chiefs warned that implementing repeal now will have a negative impact on combat readiness," McKeon said. "This is something we all ought to pay serious attention to when we're fighting two wars."
He added, "I strongly believe that we ought to listen closely to the concerns of the service chiefs, if for no other reason than they are closer to the sense and pulse of their services than the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs."
One of those service chiefs, Marine Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, told reporters Tuesday that implementing a repeal during the current war enviroment could cost lives. Amos and the chiefs of the other branches comprise four of the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines lives," Amos was quoted as saying. "That's the currency of this fight. I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction. I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda with no legs be the result of any type of distraction."
George W. Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army, made similar comments during an appearance before a Senate committee Dec. 3.
"I believe that would increase the risk on our soldiers, particularly on our soldiers that are deployed in combat," Casey said, adding that he believes there would be a "higher level of risk than is suggested in the survey."
When asked by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R.-Ga., if a repeal could "put soldiers in a greater position of injury or perhaps loss of life," Casey replied that "it could," although he didn't want to necessarily say "it would."
Top military leaders are split on the issue. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports a repeal, as does Defense Secretary Robert Gates. President Obama also backs a repeal and made a pledge during his campaign to push for a reversal.
Casey said a repeal "would be a major cultural and policy change in the middle of a war."
"I believe the implementation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the near term will, one, add another level of stress to an already stressed force; two, be more difficult in our combat arms units; and three, be more difficult for the Army than the report suggests," Casey said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, sent a letter Wednesday to House Majority Leader John Boehner, R.-Ohio, "strongly" urging representatives to oppose the bill.
"In the rush to repeal, numerous concerns are being disregarded," Land said before referencing a recent Pentagon report that surveyed military personnel. " ... For example, 58 percent of respondents in Marine combat arms units said they believed their ability to 'work together to get the job done' would be negatively affected under a repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' When asked about the impact on completing missions 'in a field environment or out at sea,' fully two-thirds (67 percent) of Marines in combat arms predicted a negative impact on their unit's effectiveness."
Additionally, the Pentagon report found that 46 percent of personnel who had served with a leader they and others thought was homosexual said the unit's performance was negatively affected.
More than a third of Marines (38.1 percent) and nearly a fourth of all personnel (23.7) said they would either leave the military or think about doing so earlier than planned if the policy is reversed, and 40 percent of Marines and 27 percent of all the military said they would be less likely to recommend to a friend or family member that he or she join the military.
Although the survey itself didn't ask whether personnel actually support
ed or opposed the policy, the Pentagon report's authors admitted that among those who were interviewed in focus groups, on the Internet and at discussion groups, "the majority of views expressed were against repeal of the current policy."
Earlier this year, more than 60 chaplains signed a letter to Obama and Gates expressing concern that overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell would result in the marginalizing of "deeply held" religious beliefs. They warned in their letter that changing the policy could influence everything in the chaplaincy, from what a chaplain can say in a sermon to what he can say in a counseling session. The fear is that chaplains who speak against homosexuality will have a discrimination complaint filed against them. Chaplains who preach through entire books of the Bible, the letter said, would "inevitably present religious teachings that identify homosexual behavior as immoral."
"Thus, while chaplains fulfill their duty to God to preach the doctrines of their faith, they would find themselves speaking words that are in unequivocal conflict with official policies," the letter said.
The latter further said, "aking orthodox Christians -- both chaplains and servicemen -- into second-class Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines whose sincerely held religious beliefs are comparable to racism cannot help recruitment or retention."
Michael Foust is an associate editor of Baptist Press.
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