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US Congress votes to end military gay ban

19 grudnia, 2010

The US Congress gave its final approval on Saturday to President Barack Obama\'s historic drive to let gays serve openly in the US military for the first time, a landmark victory for gay rights.

After a bitter debate, senators voted 65-31 to pass legislation to repeal the "Don\'t Ask, Don\'t Tell" compromise of 1993 that requires gay soldiers to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or face dismissal.

The measure, which had cleared a key procedural hurdle 63-33 hours earlier, now heads to Obama to sign into law -- triggering a White House and Pentagon certification process to ensure the smoothest possible transition.

"It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed," Obama said in a statement before the final senate vote.

The final vote saw eight Republicans join all but one of Obama\'s Democratic allies after a bitter debate that deeply divided the already polarized Senate.

"The first casualty in the war in Iraq was a gay soldier. The mine that took off his right leg didn\'t give a darn whether he was gay or straight. We shouldn\'t either," Democratic Senator Carl Levin said before the ballot.

"We cannot let these patriots down. Their suffering should end. It will end with the passage of this bill. I urge its passage today," said Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"It isn\'t broke, don\'t fix it," countered Senator John McCain, the top Republican on Levin\'s panel and Obama\'s defeated 2008 White House rival and a fierce foe of lifting the ban.

"To somehow allege that it has harmed our military is not justified by the facts," McCain said. "Don\'t think that it won\'t be at great cost."

Obama had promised during his 2008 White House campaign to lift the ban, ushering in perhaps the biggest sea change in the US military since racial integration began in 1948.

Those who wanted to scrap the policy had feared they would lose their best chance in years when a new US Congress musters in January with Republicans -- who largely oppose repeal -- in charge of the House of Representatives.

Passage triggered a time-consuming process that envisions lifting the ban only after the president, the secretary of defense, and the top US uniformed officer certify that doing so can be done without harming military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.

Republicans have scoffed that the leaders involved have already stated their support to ending the policy.

"They have already made up their minds," said Republican Senator James Inhofe.

The Pentagon issued a study this month that found a solid majority of troops were not bothered by the prospect of lifting the ban and that the military could implement the change without a major disruption or upheaval.

The repeal effort enjoyed broad support from the US public, as well as from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and US Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen.

Gates had warned that, absent congressional action, US courts may force an end to the policy before the Pentagon is ready.

On Saturday Gates welcomed the Senate vote, but cautioned that change on a practical level in the US armed forces still had a way to go.

"Once this legislation is signed into law by the president, the Department of Defense will immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully," he said.

Mullen said the repeal was "the right thing to do."

"No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so," he said, adding: "We will be a better military as a result."

In the years since the ban was enacted as a compromise, some 13,000 US troops have been ousted, and critics have pointed out that many were trained at great expense, like fighter pilots, or had hard-to-find skills, such as Arabic translators.

But opponents of the legislation have cited testimony from US military service chiefs who warned against a quick repeal, citing concerns about unit cohesion.

General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps and an opponent of lifting the ban, has warned repeal could jeopardize the lives of Marines in combat by undermining closely knit units.

"I don\'t want to lose any Marines to distraction. I don\'t want to have any Marines that I\'m visiting at Bethesda (hospital) with no legs," he told reporters.

Newly minted Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senators Jim Bunning, Judd Gregg, and Orrin Hatch did not vote on repeal.