'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal: Will there be political fallout?

Obama on Wednesday signed the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' for gays in the military. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are grumbling about all the unanticipated activity of the lame-duck Congress.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama signs the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal Act of 2010, Wednesday, Dec. 22, during a ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington.

President Obama on Wednesday signed into law a historic bill that will reverse the ban on gay men and women serving openly in United States military forces.

The White House described the legislation as equivalent to civil-rights-era laws that expanded the rights of minorities. The signing ceremony included so many supporters of the move and legislators who approved the bill that it had to be moved to the Department of the Interior, as the White House is full of holiday decorations and tours.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” said Mr. Obama of the repeal of the current “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. The repeal law, he said, "will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."

What are the political implications of this move? After all, many conservatives remain adamantly opposed to allowing gay couples to marry. That’s an issue that has proved divisive in many states. Some military leaders – notably those in the Marine Corps – say that allowing gay personnel to serve openly will disrupt the cohesion of front-line combat units. Former GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona led Senate opposition to repeal.

The short answer is that military service is different than marriage. For years, large majorities of the American people have told pollsters that they would approve of getting rid of “don’t ask” and allowing gays to serve in uniform.

A recent ABC/Washington Post survey, for instance, found that 77 percent of respondents were in favor of repeal.

In addition, the manner in which the repeal was carried out might mute any political opposition. Obama was careful to take the action only after a congressional vote, despite the fact that many gay rights groups had pushed him to make the change with a simple executive order. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, says he supports the move and will push to begin its implementation. That’s a process that will take time, Mr. Gates and other military officials noted on Wednesday.

For Obama, the repeal marks another victory in what has become a surprisingly active lame-duck Congress. Besides ending “don’t ask,” lawmakers this month have approved an $850 billion tax cut and unemployment spending package, a food safety bill, and a continuing resolution to keep the government operating. Plus, Obama appears to have the votes to get the Senate to approve the START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

That’s a long way from the vision conservatives had for the session in the wake of big Republican gains in the midterm elections. In some ways, Obama’s biggest political worry in the short term might be about the backlash – some in the GOP are angry about the activity of the lame-duck session and are vowing to take tougher action when their reinforcements arrive in January.

Only weeks ago, Republicans thought they were on the verge of defeating Senate majority leader Harry Reid in his race for reelection in Nevada. Now they’ve watched as Senator Reid not only won his election (barely), but pushed through tough votes such as the START pact.

“Harry Reid has eaten our lunch,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina of the lame duck session.

In that sense, December’s votes might lead to a tougher January for the White House.

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