The House of Representatives voted Wednesday by a wide margin to overturn the ban on gay people serving openly in the military, giving new momentum to a repeal effort that Senate Republicans blocked last week.
Backers hoped the 250-175 vote on the bill in the House would pressure Senate leaders to try again to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy amid the rush of legislative business before lawmakers adjourn for the holidays.
"We're going to get it done and end this unfairness," said Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D., Pa.), who sponsored the stand-alone bill (H.R. 2965) to end the policy. "It's about our national security," he said, noting that more than 13,500 service members have been dismissed since the ban was enacted in 1993.
Under that law, recruiters cannot ask about sexual orientation, but soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are prohibited from acknowledging they are gay.
Last week, by a vote of 57-40, the Senate failed to break a GOP filibuster against a broader military policy bill that included repeal of "don't ask don't tell." Backers needed 60 votes to end debate on the measure and bring it up for consideration.
The repeal was revived by Murphy, an Iraq war veteran, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D., Md.), who wrote a separate bill to end the ban. They believed that taking the issue out of the military-authorization measure would overcome Republican complaints that they did not have enough time to study the larger bill.
"It is never too late to do the right thing," Hoyer said.
Many Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, argue that it would be a mistake for the military to undergo a major cultural change while the nation is fighting two wars.
Implementation of any new policy should begin "when our singular focus is no longer on combat operations or preparing units for combat," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has promised to bring the House bill to the Senate floor, where it appeared there may be enough GOP support to break the filibuster and approve the repeal.
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) had been leading efforts to persuade Republicans to back repeal. Republican Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana have said they are open to voting to end the ban.
Still, the measure could be subject to hostile amendments and procedural delaying tactics. The Senate also must finish work on legislation to fund the government, and it is also facing a ratification vote on a new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.
Failure to overturn the policy by Jan. 2 could relegate the issue to the back burner next year, when Republicans, who are far less supportive, take over the House and gain strength in the Senate.
"Now is the time for us to act," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and "close the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other senior military leaders support lifting the restrictions, pointing to a recent Pentagon study showing that most people in uniform don't object to serving with gays. But the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, repeated his opposition this week, saying that lifting the ban during wartime could cost lives. "I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," he said.
President Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to end the policy, and the House voted to do so in May when it passed its version of the defense-authorization bill. Polls show most Americans support an end to the ban.
The White House, in issuing a statement in support of the repeal, stressed that the change would go into effect only after the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that implementation is consistent with military readiness, recruiting, and retention and unit cohesion.
After the vote Wednesday, Obama said in a statement: "Moving forward with the repeal is not only the right thing to do, it will also give our military the clarity and certainty it deserves. We must ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally by their country."
Joe Solmonese, president of the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, said the vote meant the House had confirmed that "the only thing that matters on the battlefield is the ability to do the job." He said the Senate must "consign this failed and discriminatory law to the dustbin of history."
How They Voted
Representatives from the Philadelphia area who voted for the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal were John Adler (D., N.J.), Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.), Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), and Joe Sestak (D., Pa.).
Voting against the bill were Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.), and Christopher H. Smith (R., N.J.).EndText