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A Done Deal? Provisional DADT Repeal Passes in House and Senate

By L.K. Regan

It's almost over—at least on paper. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16 to 12 on Thursday to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the U.S. military's ban on gays and lesbians openly serving in uniform. One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, crossed over to vote with 15 Democrats on the committee; Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia crossed over the other way, voting against repeal. The U.S. House of Representatives followed suit late Thursday evening with a 234 to 194 vote (that's 229 Democrats and five Republicans in favor) such that both houses have attached amendments ending DADT to the annual defense authorization bill. But before you dance in the streets be aware—it isn't quite over yet.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been U.S. law since 1993 when President Bill Clinton offered what was intended as a compromise policy, whereby anyone known to be gay or lesbian would not be permitted in the armed services, and in fact would be dismissed if their sexuality became known. In the years that the policy has been in place, more than 13,500 people have been dismissed for being gay or lesbian, according to the Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network. Then-candidate Obama pledged to end the policy as part of his 2008 presidential campaign, but once he was in office, gay rights groups bemoaned what they saw as insufficient movement on the issue. In January of this year, President Obama announced his intention to end DADT in his State of the Union address, and Congress quickly followed suit with hearings on the issue. But once again, movement stalled, and DADT remained in place.

Until now. Sudden urgency developed last week as lawmakers seemed to perceive a now-or-never moment. With Democratic losses expected in the midterm elections, gay rights groups have been pressing hard for a vote on DADT while the votes are still in place to repeal the policy. And with the defense authorization bill coming due for passage, this was the last pre-election opportunity to attach a DADT repeal to the annual appropriation for military spending. The rationale for attaching DADT as an amendment, rather than a stand-alone bill, depended on a couple of factors: legislation authorizing funds for troops in the field is less likely to face a filibuster in the Senate (though it remains a distinct possibility). Likewise, the spending bill is unpopular with Democrats, as it is the funding mechanism for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; attaching a DADT repeal softens the blow. It should be noted that going the amendment route was an idea suggested by gay Massachusetts representative Barney Frank, who downplayed the tactical aspect of the decision. "Military issues are always done as part of the overall authorization bill,” Frank has said. “'Don’t ask, don’t tell' was always going to be part of the military authorization.”

But don't mistake these votes for the final end of DADT. The full Senate may yet muster a filibuster. And even if they don't, and DADT is no longer the law of the land, implementation of the repeal has been delayed until the Department of Defense completes its study of the implications. That study will be completed in December, and even then strategies for implementation will need to be developed. Delaying the repeal's roll-out was a bargain worked out between the White House and congressional leaders; without it, the repeal would not have passed at all. So, while DADT is on borrowed time, it will be a while before being out in the military becomes what it should have been all along—a simple fact of life.

As Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who sponsored the repeal, said, “Bottom line, service members have been pushed out of the U.S. military not because they were inadequate or bad soldiers, sailors, Marines or airmen but because of their sexual orientation. And that’s not what America is all about.”