WASHINGTON — In a new showdown, the House this week will take up a bill that would overturn the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays, Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday.
The move would put pressure on the Senate to delay its holiday adjournment plans and take up a standalone repeal bill sponsored last week by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Connecticut's independent senator, Joseph Lieberman. That bill's fate has been in doubt because of other pressing issues facing the Senate with only days to go before it planned to conclude its lame-duck session.
Repeal advocates see this week as their last best shot at overturning "don't ask, don't tell," which bars gay troops from acknowledging their sexual orientation. Next year, Republicans take back control of the House and additional Senate seats, severely undercutting the chances that any Democratic priority will advance come January.
"This discriminatory and harmful policy has weakened America's security by depriving us of the work of tens of thousands of gay and lesbian troops who have served their country honorably," Hoyer said in a statement. "And it has severely compromised our Armed Forces' core value of integrity."
The congressional debate comes as the head of the Marine Corps told reporters that lifting the ban during wartime could cost lives.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," said Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos. "I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda (Naval Medical Center) with no legs be the result of any type of distraction."
Other senior military officials have countered that changing the law during wartime is preferable because troops are more focused on survival than a colleague's sexual orientation.
Hoyer on Tuesday said he would introduce the bill with Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy as his co-sponsor. A vote was expected as early as Wednesday.
Last May, the House voted 234-194 in favor of repeal legislation as part of a broader defense policy bill. But that bill has stalled in the Senate where Republicans have blocked it on procedural grounds and questioned unrelated provisions, including one that would allow abortions at overseas military facilities.
A stand-alone bill to overturn the military ban on openly gay troops has been introduced by Collins and Lieberman in the hopes that the slimmed-down version would attract fewer objections.
But that bill had been considered a long-shot because any Senate action would require House approval with just days before Congress was to adjourn.
The last-minute House vote would eliminate that concern and put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to keep the Senate in session past this weekend to wrap up any unfinished business.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said the majority leader is planning a vote on the bill at some point before adjournment, although the precise timing remained unclear.
Sixty senators are believed to support the bill, giving it a filibuster-proof majority, if enough debate time is allowed.
It has some 40 co-sponsors with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia being the only known Democratic opponent. At least four Republicans – Collins, and Sens. John Ensign of Nevada, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – have said they back repeal.
"We'll soon find out if promises made will be promises kept," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an advocate of repealing the law.