The drive to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military survived another House vote Friday and now moves to the Senate, where advocates on both sides of the "don't ask, don't tell" debate are gearing up for a fight.
The House voted 229-186 to pass a defense bill approving more than $700 billion for military programs and containing an amendment overturning the 1993 law allowing gays to serve in the military only if they hide their sexual orientation.
The defense bill, which normally passes by wide margins, was closer this year because many Republicans and a few conservative Democrats said they would vote against it if it contained the repeal of the gay ban. The amendment was approved 234-194 late Thursday after dominating the debate during the day.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed to the military Friday not to be distracted by the political debate over gays in uniform. In an unusual direct address to troops, Gates said he wanted to assure them that their views on the divisive question still matter.
Gates has said he supports the repeal but wanted Congress not to legislate before the military conducts an in-house survey of how the change would affect military life and operations. He was overruled by the administration, which was under pressure from gay rights groups to take up the issue this year, when Democrats still hold a secure majority in Congress.
The Senate is expected to take up the defense bill this summer, and its enactment is no sure thing. The White House on Thursday issued a veto threat because the House version includes $485 million for an alternative engine for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Gates has sought to eliminate the second engine program, saying it is wasteful. Supporters, in addition to protecting jobs in their districts, say that the competition will save money over the life cycle of the $100 billion project.
The second engine would be built by General Electric Co. and Rolls-Royce in Ohio, Indiana and other states. The main F-35 engine is built in Connecticut by Pratt & Whitney, a division of United Technologies Corp.
House approval of the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal was a major victory for President Barack Obama, who has pledged to change the policy, and for gay rights groups, who have made it their top priority this year.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a chief backer of changing the law, said he hoped to get the defense bill to the floor before Congress leaves for its summer recess at the end of July. At a news conference Friday, he expressed confidence the ban repeal would stay in the bill.
"I believe a majority of the Senate, just like a majority of the country ... favor changing this policy," he said. "It is a discriminatory policy."
He predicted that it would be hard for opponents to filibuster the defense bill over the gay rights issue because "there's so much in here for our troops." That includes money for security projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, anti-terrorism programs, billions for new ships, planes and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and money for ballistic missile defense. The House bill has a 1.9 percent pay raise for military personnel; the Senate bill 1.4 percent.
Levin's committee on Thursday approved an amendment repealing "don't ask, don't tell" on a 16-12 vote. One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, voted for it while one Democrat, Jim Webb of Virginia, opposed it.
Webb said he agreed with Gates and the chiefs of the four military services, who have urged Congress to put off votes until after the military review is completed in December.
The House and Senate amendments stipulate that the repeal would not become law until after the study is completed and until the president, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that it will not have negative effects on the military's fighting ability. The military would also have to first change its rules to comply with the law.
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