By Kenneth Jost
Associate Editor, CQ Researcher
President Obama has signed into law legislation to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military, promising that the measure will be quickly implemented and calling on discharged gay service members to re-enlist.
“No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love,” Obama said as he presided over a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday morning [Dec. 22] in a packed auditorium at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington.
The legislation calling for repealing the 17-year-old policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military cleared the final congressional hurdle on Saturday [Dec. 18] with a 65-31 Senate vote approving the measure. The House of Representatives had approved the stand-alone measure earlier [Dec. 15] by a vote of 250-175.
In signing the bill, Obama stressed that the current policy remains on the books until he, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that repeal is consistent with military readiness. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had supported repeal.
Mullen was among the dignitaries on the platform for the ceremony and received a standing ovation from the crowd as Obama thanked him for his support. Two of the individual service chiefs _ Gen. James Amos of the Marines and Gen. George Casey of the Army _ had urged Congress not to repeal the policy with U.S. forces currently engaged in Afghanistan.
Despite their previous opposition, Obama said he had spoken with each of the service chiefs on putting the new policy into effect. “They are all committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently,” Obama said.
About 13,000 service members have been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” since it was enacted into law in 1993 as an ostensible compromise to President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful effort to end restrictions against military service by gay men or lesbians. “I hope those soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen who’ve been discharged under this discriminatory policy will seek to re-enlist once the repeal is implemented,” Obama said.
The bill-signing came after a week of legislative successes for Obama, achieved in the face of what he acknowledged as a “shellacking” in the midterm congressional elections in November. On Friday [Dec. 17] Obama had signed into law what the White House called the “middle class tax cut framework” that Vice President Joe Biden had helped negotiate with Senate Republicans. The bill extends for two more years the Bush-era tax cuts that had been set to expire on Jan. 1.
Obama achieved another signal victory on Tuesday [Dec. 21] when the Senate voted 67-28 to limit debate on a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia. The vote sets the stage for the Senate to ratify the treaty, by the constitutionally required two-thirds majority, later this week. Despite opposition by the Senate’s top Republicans, 11 GOP senators joined all Democrats in voting to cut off debate.
On the same day, the House cleared for Obama’s signature a food-safety bill strongly pushed by the administration. The bill, approved by a 215-144 vote, gives the Food and Drug Administration strengthened powers to prevent contamination in whole and processed foods other than meat, poultry and eggs. Those foodstuffs are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Gay rights advocates were out in force for the bill-signing Wednesday, both in the audience and on the platform. Along with congressional leaders, two gay ex-service members stood behind Obama as he signed the measure: Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, who received a medical discharge after a landmine explosion in Iraq cost him one of his legs; and Navy Commander Zoe Dunning, who retired in 2007 after having won a legal battle to stay in the service following her public acknowledgment of her sexual orientation in 1993 while in the Navy Reserve.
For background, see Peter Katel, “Gays in the Military,” CQ Researcher [subscription needed], Sept. 18, 2009; updated, Oct. 15, 2010. See also Peter Katel, “Food Safety,” CQ Researcher [subscription needed], Dec. 17, 2010.