Senate Armed Services panel approves 'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday voted to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law that bans openly gay people from serving in the military.

The panel voted 16-12 to repeal the law. Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against the measure, while Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the only Republican to vote for it.

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Fifteen votes were needed to include the measure in the 2011 defense authorization bill. 

“Today’s action by the Senate Armed Services Committee is an important step to end this discriminatory policy,” Levin said. “I believe that allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly will open the ranks to more patriotic men and women who wish to serve their country.”

Under the provision, the repeal will not be implemented until the Pentagon finishes its review of how it would impact the military. President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must first certify it can be achieved consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.

“With the effective leadership of Chairman Levin, my colleagues adopted a compromise amendment which carefully accommodates the recommendations of the Pentagon working group and is consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention,” Lieberman said.

The language reflects a deal worked out between key members of Congress and the White House.

To make the vote palatable to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel's chairman, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) also agreed to allow Congress to have 60 days to review the implementation policy once certified.

Byrd and Collins voted in favor of repeal along with Democratic Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Roland Burris (Ill.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.).

At press time, the House had yet to vote on a mirror amendment sponsored by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.). The House is debating the 2011 defense authorization bill.

Gay rights activists who fought to see repeal this year on Thursday hailed the Senate panel’s action, but warned that gay service members can still be discharged despite the legislation that was approved.

“The Senate Armed Services Committee passed a historic roadmap to allowing open military service, but it doesn’t end the discharges,” said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization solely focused on repeal.

“It is important for all gay and lesbian, active-duty service members, including the reserves and the National Guard, to know they’re at risk. They must continue to serve in silence under the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ law that remains on the books. Congress and the Pentagon need to stay on track to get repeal finalized, hopefully no later than first quarter 2011,” Sarvis added.