Deal could end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

President Obama reached a deal with key Democrats on Monday that could repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy governing gays and lesbians in the military — assuming Congress signs on.

The proposal would let lawmakers vote now to repeal the law and allow people who are openly gay to serve, once the president and top military leaders certify that the repeal wouldn’t threaten the military’s “readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention,” according to documents the sponsors sent to the administration.

The White House replied that the proposal “meets the concerns” raised by the Pentagon and that the Obama administration supported it.

Voting before the November election — in which Democrats are expected to lose seats — gives the proposal its best chance at passage.

The House could take up the proposal, as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, as early as Thursday. But the House’s third-ranking Republican said his party would oppose it.

“The American people don’t want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told the Associated Press.

Democrats hold a commanding lead in the House and probably could pass the proposal without Republican support, unless conservative Democrats defected.

In the Senate, which expects to act in June, 60 votes are required to cut off debate. Republicans hold 41 seats and could filibuster if they choose.

Gay rights activists hailed the proposal, while conservatives condemned it.

Even if the plan becomes law, current practices would stay the same until sometime after the Pentagon completes a review of its ability to adapt to the change without harming military readiness. That review is scheduled to end Dec. 1.

The policy has been in effect since 1993, when it was considered a reform. President Clinton instituted “don’t ask, don’t tell” to end the military’s practice of seeking out and ejecting gays and lesbians. As long as gays keep their sexual orientation secret, they are allowed to serve.

More than 10,000 service members have been discharged for violating the policy.

Obama has long pledged to do away with the ban on openly gay service members. Several military leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have said they agree with ending the ban. But legislation had been elusive until now.

The lead sponsors of the repeal measure, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), pledged to work on both sides of the aisle to pass the proposal.

“It is our firm belief that it is time to repeal this discriminatory policy that not only dishonors those who are willing to give their lives in service to their country but also prevents capable men and women with vital skills from serving in the armed forces at a time when our nation is fighting two wars,” Murphy and Lieberman said in a statement late Monday.

In a letter to the White House, Murphy, Lieberman and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, outlined their plan to repeal the policy pending certification of readiness by the president and top military officials.

White House Budget Director Peter R. Orszag replied in writing that, although it would be “ideal” if Congress waited for the Pentagon readiness review before taking action, the administration found the plan acceptable.

The proposal “recognizes the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process,” Orszag wrote. “The administration therefore supports the proposed amendment.”

Gay rights activists, who have been impatient with the administration’s failure to act sooner, were thrilled.

“This announcement from the White House today is long-awaited, much-needed and immensely helpful as we enter a critical phase of the battle to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,” said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and a former Army interrogator who was discharged under the policy.

“We have been making the case to White House staff for more than a year now that delayed implementation is realistic, politically viable and the only way to get the defense community on board with repeal, and we are glad to see the community and now the administration and defense leadership finally rally around this option,” Nicholson said.

But Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, criticized the agreement as a backroom deal that “disregards the views of our troops and uses the military to advance the political agenda of a radical special interest group.”

“This rushed deal is a tacit admission that after the November election, the Democrats are likely to lose a working liberal majority,” Perkins said. “They want to get what they can now, and also far enough away from the election that it won’t be prominent in the mind of voters.”

Julian Barnes of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.