WASHINGTON - A White House-approved proposal to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" ban against gays serving openly in the military is expected to face a vote in Congress as early as this week.
Gay rights groups are urging quick congressional approval of the legislation, which would repeal the ban but also allow the Pentagon to continue its review of how to implement the new policy.
The White House had hoped lawmakers would delay action until Pentagon officials had completed their study so fellow Democrats would not face criticism that they moved too quickly or too far ahead of public opinion in this election year. When administration officials recognized they could not stop Congress in its effort to repeal the ban, they invited gay rights activists to the White House to work on a compromise Monday.
"Without a repeal vote by Congress this year, the Pentagon's hands are tied and the armed forces will be forced to continue adhering to the discriminatory 'don't ask, don't tell' law," says Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., an Iraq war veteran, is expected to introduce the legislative proposal Tuesday, with a vote possible as early as Thursday. Republicans say they'll fight the proposal.
Implementation of new policy on gays serving openly would still require the approval of President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. How long implementation might take is not known.
The White House budget office supports the proposal as an amendment to the annual defense spending bill. The amendment, said budget chief Peter Orszag in a letter to lawmakers, will allow for "comprehensive review, enable the Department of Defense to assess the results of the review, and ensure that the implementation of the repeal is consistent with standards of military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention."
Hours later, top Democratic lawmakers signed off on the final version of the brokered deal. However, the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, promised unified GOP opposition.
"The American people don't want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda. And House Republicans will stand on that principle," Pence said. He urged Democrats to wait until the Pentagon completes its review.
Obama called for the repeal during his State of the Union address this year, and Gates and Mullen have echoed his views while cautioning that any action must be paced. Still, gay rights activists have criticized the administration for doing little to push for a repeal during Obama's first year in office.
A Gallup poll earlier this month found 70 percent of American favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.
One organization dedicated to repealing the law urged supporters to delay celebration. "President Obama's support and Secretary Gates' buy-in should ensure a winning vote, but we are not there yet," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "The votes still need to be worked and counted."
The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy came about in 1993 as a compromise between President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the ban on gays entirely, and a reluctant Congress and military, which said doing so would threaten order.
Under the policy, the military can't ask recruits their sexual orientation. In turn, service members can't say they are gay or bisexual, engage in homosexual activity or marry a member of the same sex.
Between 1997 and 2008, the Defense Department discharged more than 10,500 service members for violating the policy.