White House and Pentagon clear way for repeal of military ban on gays

Defense secretary says he can accept a legislative proposal to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The Obama administration cautiously endorsed plans to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" on Monday, paving the way for Congress to overturn the 17-year ban on homosexuals serving in the military.

In response to letters from lawmakers eager to press for a vote, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag said the White House would support measures to repeal the ban, with the provision that changes would be rolled out only after a Pentagon working group finished a review on how to implement a policy reversal. That study is due to Congress by Dec. 1.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., and Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced the legislative proposal on May 24 after Congress and the White House reached a compromise. The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to vote on the amendment to the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act by the end of the week, and the House is expected to vote on a similar measure this week.

Ideally, Congress would take legislative action after the review, Orszag said in his statement. But, he added, holding off on immediately implementing changes "recognizes the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process through a thorough understanding of their concerns, insights, and suggestions."

In a similar vein, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged under ideal circumstances, the review would have been completed before lawmakers took any action. In late April, Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen wrote to Congress requesting that lawmakers hold off on a vote to repeal the policy until after a comprehensive study.

"With Congress having indicated that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment," said Gates' chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, in a statement.

The circumstances are surprising, considering statements made in Congress last week that indicated lawmakers were reluctant to address the hot-button issue.

During a May 19 markup of the authorization bill, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he and the panel's ranking member, Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., "agreed to support Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates' request for time to study the issue. And we do not support this issue being raised in this markup."

According to the watchdog organization Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, more than 13,500 soldiers have been discharged since 1994 because of the ban.

Right-leaning groups have argued overturning the ban would adversely affect military morale and readiness. But a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released on Tuesday revealed that 78 percent of the public supports openly gay people serving in the military.