The House closed a divisive debate over gays in the military Tuesday by voting to write a modified version of President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy into law.
In a passionate debate that ran a gamut of emotions--with conservatives branding homosexuality as an “abomination” and gay rights supporters likening the cause to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s--the lawmakers voted, 301 to 134, to approve the controversial compromise that was adopted earlier this month by the Senate.
The vote, on which Democrats were deeply split, means that the modified ban prohibiting openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces will become law as soon as the $263-billion defense authorization bill to which it is attached is signed as expected by Clinton.
The defense bill, which makes only modest cuts in the funding that Clinton sought to reshape the post-Cold War military, is expected to be approved by the House later this week. Minor differences must still be reconciled with the Senate but, on the issue of gays in the military, the bills are identical.
Hoping to lay to rest the bitter controversy that dominated the start of the Clinton Administration, the House accepted the compromise drafted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) after rejecting rival attempts to strengthen the ban on gays in the military and to remove it entirely.
“Enough is enough,” pleaded Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo), the House Armed Services Committee member who sponsored the compromise. “The issue of homosexuality in the military has been far too divisive. We must put this issue behind us.”
As written into both bills, the compromise for the first time would codify the Ronald Reagan-era ban on homosexuals serving in the military into law. But it also would stop the practice of asking recruits about their sexual orientation when they enlist and it would bar commanders from investigating an individual’s sexual orientation without credible evidence indicating homosexual behavior.
Critics on both sides assailed the compromise as unfair and unworkable.
“I would have hoped that by this time in our history discrimination would have been only a bad dream of the past and that we would judge people in this country on the basis of their conduct and not their private inclinations,” said Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose).
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a former civil rights activist who led the 1965 voting rights march in Alabama, declared: “The words we hear today are the same words we heard in 1963 . . . when we debated whether black Americans would have the right to sit at the same lunch counter with white Americans.”
But Democrats split over an amendment that would have stricken the bill’s language on gays in the military and left the question up to the President.
“This is not a matter of civil rights,” said Skelton. “This is a matter of winning on the battlefield. Second place doesn’t count on the battlefield. Unit cohesion matters most.”
Offered by Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), the amendment to strike the ban was defeated, 264 to 169, with 101 Democrats joining all but 11 Republicans in voting no.
Conservative Republicans led by Rep. Duncan Hunter of San Diego then sought to strengthen the ban with an amendment that would have required the Defense Department to ask recruits about their sexual orientation and to reject those who admitted being gay.
Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), supporting Hunter’s amendment, declared: “We cannot compromise on morality. . . . Homosexuality is an abomination.”
The amendment lost, 292 to 144.