Senate Democrats no longer have the luxury of waiting to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Republican gains during the midterm elections mean that the incoming Congress will be far less likely to strike the discriminatory law. Gay service members fighting for their country should not have to remain in the closet until the politics are more opportune. A repeal provision has already passed the House and sits in the annual Senate defense authorization bill. If Senate Democrats try but don't succeed during the coming lame-duck session, at least they will have lost fighting for what is right.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly promised to reverse the 17-year-old law that forces gay troops to keep their sexual orientation a secret. The policy is a drag on military readiness when people with critically needed skills, such as foreign language and medical specialties, are ousted from military service. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress earlier in the year that allowing homosexuals to serve openly is a matter of integrity and the right thing to do. Even military service members and their spouses don't have a problem with serving alongside gays; at least that is what a soon-to-be-released Pentagon survey is expected to show. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who initially cautioned a go-slow approach until the survey of active-duty forces was conducted, is now pushing for repeal before the end of the year.
But Republican-led opposition may scuttle the effort. Using their minority power in the Senate, Republicans may prevent it from coming to an up-or-down vote. Democrats will need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former naval aviator, is leading the campaign against repeal, marching further away from the moderate, bipartisan efforts he was once respected for.
The Pentagon has defended "don't ask, don't tell," and some leaders within various armed forces branches have raised concerns about moving to an open service policy. But actions suggest that the military doesn't believe its own rhetoric.
A number of investigations of service members thought to be homosexual were suspended until they returned from deployment in combat operations overseas. If the military truly believed that gay troops had a negative impact on unit cohesion or military readiness, their discharge would have been pursued as soon as possible.
Our military works jointly with allies that admit gay soldiers. The United States remains one of the last Western democracies to bar gays from openly serving in the armed forces.
The House repeal measure is the same as the one waiting for consideration in the Senate. It calls for a slow implementation of an open service policy, leaving details for the Pentagon to work out, consistent with its survey results. But if Congress doesn't act, the courts may do the work instead. Currently, a federal judge's ruling that the law is unconstitutional is on appeal.
One way or another, this noxious law will go. The better way is through Congress. Now.