Next Steps for 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' Repeal

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen discuss the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal at a Pentagon press conference in March. Alex Wong / Getty

We now know, after late Thursday-night votes in the House and Senate armed services committees, that a repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell"—the 1993 law banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military—will be inserted into the defense authorization bill, which will be due for a vote in late June or early July. That step was a huge victory for opponents of the law, but there are many hurdles still facing the repeal. 

This week has seen decisive action, but questions remain as to how swift the rest of the process will be. After years of no movement on the law, a compromise was hashed out on Monday, with a vote just days later. Why the speed? Supporters of the repeal worry that if Congress does not act before the November elections, the repeal might not get the support it needs with Republicans potentially gaining enough seats to block the measure.   

The compromise does not immediately lift the ban on gays serving in the military, nor does it include nondiscrimination language, something that worries advocates who want a swift and sweeping repeal ASAP. While momentum is on the side of repeal, there are several roadblocks ahead. Many expect the full defense authorization bill to pass the House, though there are risks: House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, among other conservative Democrats, opposes the compromise. 

In the Senate, it would take 60 votes to strip the amendment from the bill altogether, a move many think is unlikely, and one reason why gay advocates pressed for this approach to the repeal. But some Senate Republicans, led by John McCain, are vowing to support a filibuster of the entire bill. Advocates of repeal are already furiously reaching out to voters to contact their senators (including Sen. Jim Webb, the only Democrat on the Armed Services Committee who voted against the amendment).

If the defense authorization bill passes with the amendment included, that still does not mean that DADT is over. Built into the compromise language is an agreement that nothing will happen before the Pentagon presents its findings into the effects of the repeal on troop readiness, morale, and recruitment, and that report is not due to Congress until Dec. 1. At that point, there would be at least a 60-day congressional review of the amendment. In addition, the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all must certify that lifting the repeal would not do harm to the military.

Obama has said he was "pleased" by the vote, but the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, in letters solicited by Senator McCain, have objected to congressional action on the repeal before the Pentagon completes its study.