Is Congress forcing Obama's hand on 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal?

President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted to move forward with a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' more slowly. But Congress is pressing for a vote this week.

By , Correspondent

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    A member of the military who was fired because of 'don't ask, don't tell' attends a press conference on Capitol Hill May 3 to protest the Pentagon policy.
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As American public support for gays and lesbians has reached record levels, Congress is pressing ahead to vote on a proposal to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bans gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military.

Congress may vote as early as Thursday on an amendment that would put a process in place to repeal the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both tepidly backed the proposal – although it came sooner that either had probably wanted, says Carl Bon Tempo, a historian at the University at Albany in New York.

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“What’s clear is that Obama administration wanted to go slow and not deal with this until after the midterm election, [but] their hand has been forced by Democrats in Congress,” for whom the legislation would be advantageous in their own districts, says Professor Bon Tempo. “And so they’re pushing hard and forcing the administration to move this up on agenda.”

Secretary Gates has also indicated he would have preferred to have more time to study the issue before Congress votes.

Gates “continues to believe that ideally the [Defense Department] review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, the Pentagon said in a statement released Tuesday. But “with Congress having indicated that this is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”

Will it pass?

Whether or not the bill will pass Congress is unclear, as most Republicans will oppose it and many Democrats have said they are unsure how they will vote. Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, for example, has already indicated that he will vote against repealing the bill.

Even if Congress votes to repeal the bill, the measure can be finalized only after the Pentagon reviews the legislation and it is approved by President Obama, Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Pentagon is expected to complete its review by the end of 2010.

Even then, there is considerable ambiguity in what rights the legislation will give to gays in the military, says Bon Tempo. The repeal measures currently under consideration would give the military an undetermined amount of time to devise new rules and regulations pertaining to gays in the military.

“Nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen [if the repeal is passed]," says Bon Tempo. "That’s why everybody’s calling it a compromise. It doesn’t clarify what rights gays in military will have in the future. It kicks the can down the road" for Congress and the President to deal with later.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was adopted in 1993 during the Clinton administration. It was intended as a compromise, a policy that both restricted the US military from “witch-hunting” gays and lesbians as well as prohibiting openly gay people from joining the military.

A sea change in public opinion

The sweeping changes Congress is considering seem to reflect a sea change in public opinion on gay relations and gays in the military.

A May 10, 2010, Gallup poll finds broad support for gays in the military: 70 percent of Americans favor allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military, the poll found.

“That’s a number that would have been unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago when Clinton initiated this policy,” says Bon Tempo. “That’s a significant change when you think about it over longer historical term.”

A CNN poll released Tuesday finds nearly 8 out of 10 Americans support gays in the military.

“Support is widespread, even among Republicans,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said in the poll report. “Nearly 6 in 10 Republicans favor allowing openly gay individuals to serve in the military.”

And American public support for gay relations has crossed the symbolic 50 percent threshold, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.

Fifty-two percent of Americans consider gay and lesbian relations “morally acceptable,” the highest acceptance levels recorded. About 40 percent of Americans approved of gay relations in 2001.

"We are seeing this long-term change in public opinion," says Bon Tempo. "More and more people live in world where gays are part of the political discourse and people are becoming more comfortable with this idea."

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