WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives voted 234-194 Thursday night to repeal the military's 17-year-old policy that prohibits gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the nation's armed forces.
The House vote followed the Senate Armed Services Committee vote of 16-12 to end former President Bill Clinton's 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military but subjects them to expulsion if their sexual orientation becomes known.
"Discrimination against gays and lesbians takes a very real toll on our national security," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D., Md.) said before the vote. "Many of the arguments spoken in favor of the exclusion and expulsion of gays and lesbians from our military have been heard before - when they were used to justify segregation."
Supporters of the repeal say that 13,500 service personnel have been dismissed from the armed forces under the policy. In the early stages of the Iraq war, 320 people who spoke languages such as Arabic and Farsi were expelled because of their sexual orientation, Hoyer said.
The House and Senate debates occurred despite the concerns of the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, who did not want Congress to vote on repealing the policy until the Pentagon completed a study on the impact of the changes by December.
However, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado on Wednesday that he was comfortable with the legislation.
The House's main business Thursday was supposed to be a debate and vote on a $760 billion defense spending bill.
Most of the talk, however, centered on an amendment by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.) - a former Army captain who served in Iraq - that would repeal the policy, but not immediately.
Instead, the repeal would occur after the Pentagon completed its study. Also, no repeal could occur until President Obama, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of defense all certify that repeal "will not hurt military readiness or unit cohesion."
The Obama administration said in a letter Monday that it backed Murphy's amendment, saying it "recognized the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process through a thorough understanding of their concerns, insights and suggestions."
However, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), a Navy veteran who opposes a repeal, solicited letters from the four military chiefs saying that changing the policy before the Pentagon finishes its review would send the wrong message to service members.
In the Senate committee, one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted in favor of repeal, and one Democrat, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, voted in opposition.
Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), one of three openly gay lawmakers in the 535-member Congress, noted that several nations allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
While lawmakers and military officials battle over gays in the military, a Gallup poll this month found that 70 percent of Americans support allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military, while 25 percent oppose it.
Representatives from the Philadelphia area who voted to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy were John Adler (D., N.J.), Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), and Joe Sestak (D., Pa.).