The Obama administration has backed a breakthrough compromise on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which would give openly gay people the right to serve in the military. However, passage of the measure still hinges on support from a wavering Congress and a final confirmation from the president and top military leaders that the repeal does not threaten the military's "readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention," according to Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The compromise amendment, which originated at the Center for American Progress, was sponsored by Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pennsylvania), an Iraq war veteran, and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), who both pledged to work on both sides of the aisle to pass the proposal. It will allow Congress to expedite a vote on whether to repeal the policy through amendments to the defense department spending bill, which will be voted on on Thursday. But the implementation would be delayed until the Pentagon completed its nearly year-long review of its ability to adapt to the change without harming military readiness and to implement the repeal. The report is due December 1.
Obama has long pledged to do away with the ban on openly gay service members, and the Democrats' current commanding lead in the House, along with the uncertainty that they will be able to retain it after the November elections, has strengthened the administration's push to get the repeal through.
The White House said that the proposal "meets the concerns" raised by the Pentagon and that the Obama administration supported it despite the push by the Department of Defense (DoD) to suspend movement on the repeal. In a letter to the House Armed Service Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who supports the measure, urged Congress " in the strongest possible terms" not to repeal the law until the review is completed.
Following the administration's comments Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said Gates "continues to believe that ideally the DOD review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' law," but "with Congress having indicated that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment."
Jonathan Capehart, an opinion columnist in The Washington Post, said that military support of the measure was essential, because "failing to get the military on board for the decision to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly was one of the mistakes that produced 'don't ask, don't tell' to begin with."
When the policy was instituted by President Clinton in 1993 it was considered a reform, ending the military's practice of seeking out and discharging gay and lesbian people.
Despite the blessing of the White House, Democrats may face difficulties within their own ranks. Some conservative Democrats have said they won't vote to change the "don't ask, don't tell" law until the Pentagon has completed its review. The compromise hopes to win the approval of both this group and the more liberal Democrats pushing for an immediate repeal.
"It is our firm belief that it is time to repeal this discriminatory policy that not only dishonors those who are willing to give their lives in service to their country but also prevents capable men and women with vital skills from serving in the armed forces at a time when our nation is fighting two wars," Murphy and Lieberman, the main House and Senate sponsors, said in a statement late Monday.
The Democrats also expect to face the usual Republican attempts to filibuster the bill - the House's third-ranking Republican, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana), told The Associated Press his party would oppose it. In the Senate, Republicans hold 41 seats and could filibuster if they choose.
A dozen retired military leaders recently wrote to Congress and the White House saying the time had come to overturn the "discriminatory and misguided" policy, which does not allow gay men and women to serve openly in the Armed Forces.
Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and former Army interrogator, was one of the more than 10,000 service members who have been discharged for violating the policy.
Nicholson reacted to the bill with cautious optimism, saying: "This announcement from the White House today is long-awaited, much-needed and immensely helpful as we enter a critical phase of the battle to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' law."