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Murphy becomes point man on 'don't ask' repeal

For more than a year, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.) has sidled up to House colleagues for quiet conversations, allaying concerns - and collecting votes - one person at a time.

For more than a year, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.) has sidled up to House colleagues for quiet conversations, allaying concerns - and collecting votes - one person at a time.

The second-term congressman from Bucks County has been the point man for the Democratic leadership on the effort to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.

The repeal could come to a vote on the House floor as early as Thursday, in the form of an amendment to the annual authorization bill for the Defense Department. A Senate committee could advance a similar measure Thursday as well.

Murphy, 36, who served in Iraq as a lawyer in the 82d Airborne Division, said his 11-year Army career convinced him the 1993 policy was unjust.

"I saw soldiers get thrown out of the military not for any kind of misconduct, but for being gay, being who they are," he said in an interview.

Murphy's role is a confluence between his strong interest in the issue and the needs of the leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) assigned the job to Murphy, a self-described conservative Blue Dog Democrat whose military background may provide some political cover.

Since the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was implemented, about 13,500 service members have been discharged for being gay. Murphy and other backers of repeal argue it is a national security issue because the nation can ill afford to lose trained troops while it is fighting two wars.

And at an average cost of $60,000 to train each soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine, the policy also has cost taxpayers $1.3 billion, Murphy estimates.

For years, allowing gays to serve openly in the military has been a political issue, but polls suggest it is losing its sting with the public. A Gallup poll this month found that 70 percent of Americans surveyed support repealing "don't ask, don't tell." Other recent polls have shown smaller percentages but still clear majority support for repeal.

Then, 42 percent

When the policy, a Clinton-era compromise, was put in place, just 42 percent of Americans supported allowing gays to serve. Beforehand, the military actively sought to root out homosexuals in the ranks; under "don't ask, don't tell," gays have been allowed in the armed forces as long as they do not disclose their sexual orientation.

President Obama promised during his 2008 campaign to end the policy, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favor repeal. Mullen called it an issue of "integrity" for both the military and gay service members who are forced to live a lie.

Even so, repeal has been a tricky political matter, requiring negotiations among administration officials, congressional leaders, and gay-rights groups. The White House had wanted Congress to delay until the Pentagon completes a review, now under way, of the impact of changing the policy.

Under an agreement reached Monday and embodied in Murphy's amendment, the repeal can be passed now but would be on hold until the Pentagon finishes its study of whether the change will hurt military readiness, "unit cohesion," and recruiting and retention.

When the president, defense secretary, and Joint Chiefs chairman certify that allowing gays to serve openly would not undercut those requirements, the repeal can take effect, according to the amendment. It is unclear when that might be, but the Pentagon has said it would finish its study by Dec. 1.

Some advocates of repeal are unhappy with a delay, but Murphy said it was a "smart agreement that finally dismantles 'don't ask, don't tell.' "

A similar measure introduced in the Senate by Carl Levin (D., Mich.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the Armed Services Committee, which Levin chairs, and supporters said Wednesday that they would have enough votes to send it to the floor.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a conservative Armed Services Democrat who had been wary, said Wednesday he would support the repeal.

"In a military which values honesty and integrity, this policy encourages deceit," Nelson said. He said he was reassured that the Pentagon would be given time to implement the change.

Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation make clear that the Pentagon cannot recognize same-sex marriage in awarding benefits, because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Murphy said there were enough votes to pass his amendment in the House, but GOP leaders are promising to stand united against it.

"The American people don't want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda, and House Republicans will stand on that principle," Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) said Tuesday.

Obama did little last year to push a change in the policy, angering gay-rights activists who thought he was backing away from his campaign promise. Obama's advisers wanted to limit distractions in 2009 as the administration pursued health-care legislation, and wanted the Pentagon to buy into the change.

Home district

Murphy is running for reelection Nov. 2 against former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, the Republican he narrowly defeated in 2006 to win his first term in the House.

Fitzpatrick did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment on the issue, but Murphy said he did not expect political harm from his role. The Eighth District, which includes most of Bucks County and a piece of Montgomery County and Northeast Philadelphia, is considered moderate on social issues.

"Most of the families in my district are like the paratroopers I served with," Murphy said. "They don't care if you're gay or straight but whether you can do your job."