A stand-alone bill that would overturn the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy cleared the House, 250-175, sending it to the Senate, which has a crowded plate with less than three weeks left in the lame duck session. New representatives and senators will be sworn in Jan. 4, after which Republicans will control the House and have five more Senate seats.
Because a repeal effort will be all but dead in the next Congress, repeal supporters are scrambling to pass it while Democrats remain in control of both chambers. The stand-alone bill is part of a new strategy that was launched after repeal efforts seemed doomed Dec. 9 when Senate Republicans blocked a defense bill that included repeal language.
"et me be clear. We are very quickly running out of days in this Congress," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., said in a statement following the House vote. "The time for week-long negotiations on amendments and requests for days of debate is over. Republican Senators who favor repealing this discriminatory policy need to join with us now to stand against those who are trying to run out the clock on this Congress."
In the final days of the lame duck session, Senate Democrats still want to pass an omnibus spending bill and ratify the START nuclear treaty -- two huge pieces of legislation. Republicans opposed to the spending bill have said they will force Senate clerks to read the entire 1,924-page bill, which could take about 50 hours to accomplish, The Hill newspaper reported.
Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have reached an agreement on the defense authorization bill, which might require unanimous consent in the Senate to pass, meaning that no one would oppose it. The agreement came after Democratic leaders agreed to strip controversial language from the bill that would have overturned Don't Ask, Don't Tell and allowed abortions in military hospitals. When those controversial measures were included, Republicans successfully filibustered the bill twice.
Supporters of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy warn that repealing it would harm military readiness, cohesion, privacy and recruitment, and also encroach upon the religious liberty of those in the military whose opposition to homosexual conduct is based on the Bible.
But opponents of the policy have picked up key support in the Senate in recent days, including the backing of Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Scott Brown (Mass.), all of whom have said they support the stand-alone bill. If they vote with Democrats to break a filibuster, then the bill likely will pass.
Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., made clear during the floor debate Dec. 15 that she wanted to jumpstart Senate debate on the issue. The House previously passed a repeal as part of the defense authorization bill.
"By acting again, it is my hope that we will encourage the Senate to take long overdue action," she said.
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 that surveyed military personnel 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 environment 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. He applauded the House vote and said, "We must ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally by their country."
Casey, though, 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 supported 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 letter 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 associate editor of Baptist Press. See how your representative voted at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2010/roll638.xml.
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