The House passed a stand-alone bill on Wednesday that would repeal the ban on openly gay service members, shipping the measure to the Senate, where its future is unclear.
The bill passed 250-175, with 15 Republicans voting with most Democrats to pass it. Fifteen Democrats opposed the measure.
The White House and Democratic leaders have made passage of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal a priority for the lame-duck Congress. The House already passed the repeal in May as part of the defense authorization bill, but after Senate Democrats failed last week to secure enough votes to advance the authorization, House Democrats opted to tackle the repeal on its own.
Rep. Barney Frank, who presided over the final vote and who is one of three openly gay Members, said House Democratic leaders have been telling Senate Democrats that they must vote on the stand-alone repeal before the House agrees to complete work on the defense authorization bill.
“We are not going to get into a situation where we pass the bill and the authorization and then ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ dies. That’s not acceptable,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.
“If the Senate were to pass ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ separately and then pass the authorization, there would be no problem,” he added. “The authorization would whip through the House easily on suspension.”
Just five Republicans voted with Democrats in May to attach the repeal to the defense authorization bill, and those same five voted for the repeal Wednesday: Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.), Anh “Joseph” Cao (La.), Charles Djou (Hawaii), Ron Paul (Texas) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.). Republicans who switched their votes to “yes” this time around included Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) and Mike Castle (Del.).
Democrats’ push on the stand-alone bill is their last shot at moving the issue this year — and likely for years to come, given that Republicans will control the House and have a stronger hold in the Senate in the 112th Congress.
It remains to be seen whether the Senate has the votes and makes the time to take up the issue before the end of the lame-duck session. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stressed in a statement Wednesday evening that although he plans to bring up the House-passed bill, lawmakers “are very quickly running out of days in this Congress.”
“The time for week-long negotiations on amendments and requests for days of debate is over,” he said. “Republican Senators who favor repealing this discriminatory policy need to join with us now to stand against those who are trying to run out the clock on this Congress.”
Meanwhile, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a new defense authorization measure Wednesday without the repeal language, and they said they hope both chambers pass it before the end of the year.
Wednesday’s vote came after an hour of fiery and mostly partisan debate over the policy. Democrats and Republicans who have served in the military came forward with differing positions on the repeal.
“When you take an oath to die for freedom, it matters not who you love at home but that you love your country,” said Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), who served in the Air Force for 17 years.
Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who recently retired from the Army after 30 years, said it would be “a bad thing” to repeal the policy. “Tolerance does not require a moral equivalency. Think about it,” he said.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who will chair the Armed Services Committee next year, said the administration did a “lousy” job of reviewing the policy and charged Democrats with pushing for a repeal as part of a “political and social experiment that we’re now going to press into the military.”
McKeon said he hopes the Senate will vote down the repeal when it comes up next week. But if it passes, he said to expect his committee to hold several oversight hearings next year to examine how military leaders are carrying out the repeal.
“I’d like to know the military’s plan for rolling this out: What are they going to do on day one, day two, day three?” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.