Conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson said Wednesday he will support a proposed repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law against gays serving openly in the military - upping the odds that the measure will pass.
The Nebraska lawmaker, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced his decision as the panel gathered to hammer out a military policy bill that is expected to include a provision to repeal the controversial law.
"I don't believe that most Nebraskans want to continue a policy that not only encourages but requires people to be deceptive and to lie. The 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy does just that," said Mr. Nelson in a prepared statement.
The measure is now expected to have enough support to clear the panel in a vote as early as Thursday, setting up a full vote in the Senate, where 60 votes in the 100-member chamber likely will be needed for passage.
Opponents of the proposal say the 17-year-old ban has worked and that lawmakers should await the findings of a Pentagon review of the policy before changing it. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered the study, due Dec. 1, at the request of President Obama, who's vowed to repeal it.
But Mr. Nelson said a key reason for his decision to support the measure, proposed by Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, is that it would delay implementation of the repeal until the Pentagon study is finished. And repealing the law also would be subject to Pentagon and White House approval.
"I will support the Lieberman compromise because it removes politics from the process," Mr. Nelson said.
The leader of Human Rights Campaign, one of the country's largest gay advocacy groups, immediately praised Mr. Nelson, saying that "he and other senators supporting repeal will be on the right side of history."
"While Senator Nelson's vote is critical, no vote will be taken for granted in these final hours before the Senate committee vote," said group President Joe Solmonese.
Mr. Nelson's support comes a day after fellow Armed Services Committee member Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican, promised her support for the Lieberman proposal. Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, also is in favor of the repeal, although several panel members haven't said how they will vote on the measure.
Mr. Nelson said the current law regarding gays in the military - established as a compromise during the Clinton administration in 1993 - breeds suspicion within ranks and encourages senior officers "to look the other way."
"In a military which values honesty and integrity, this policy encourages deceit," he said.
The House Armed Services Committee passed its version of the Department of Defense Authorization bill last week without addressing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But House Democratic leaders are expected to include an amendment calling for the policy's repeal. A full House vote on the bill could happen as early as Thursday.
The Obama administration initially had hinted it would prefer waiting for legislation until after the Pentagon's report is finished. But with the House and Senate working this month to complete their annual defense authorization bills, Capitol Hill Democrats saw an opportunity to repeal the policy. The White House on Monday gave its support to the Democrats' approach.
Mr. Gates said Tuesday that he wouldn't oppose the Democrats' approach, although he added he would prefer Congress to hold off until the Pentagon completes its study.
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