US & World

Key Senator Backs 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal

Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska says he set aside his reservations after speaking with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Sen. Ben Nelson announced Wednesday that he will support a measure that sets Congress on a course to repeal as early as this week the 17-year-old federal law banning openly gay Americans from serving in the military.

The Nebraska Democrat’s decision brings Democratic leaders close to the 15 votes they need to move the provision out of the 28-member Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday and to the Senate floor, where it will be considered as part of the annual defense authorization bill.

Repeal proponents think they now have the votes to get the amendment out of committee.

"We believe Armed Services Committee Chairman [Carl] Levin pretty much has the votes he needs to pass the repeal amendment,” says Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which represents members of the military who have been affected by the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law.

Democrats control the committee with 16 members. Susan Collins of Maine is the lone Republican who has said she will vote for repeal.

"I don’t believe Nebraskans want to continue a policy that not only encourages but requires people to be deceptive and to lie," Nelson said in a prepared statement. "The don't ask, don't tell policy does just that."

"It also encourages suspicion and senior officers to look the other way," he said. "In a military which values honesty and integrity, this policy encourages deceit."

Nelson had earlier indicated he would vote against the repeal amendment, offered by independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an Armed Services Committee member, because military leaders had said they preferred that legislative repeal efforts wait until an armed services review of the effects of repeal is finished in December.

This week, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that while ideally he would have liked Congress to wait, he endorsed the compromise reached by the White House and Congress to move repeal forward. Under the terms of the compromise, repeal of the law, if approved by the House and Senate, would not go into effect until the completion of the military’s review. Democrats have a 78-vote edge in the House, and they control the Senate 59-41.

"I spoke to Secretary Gates and he advised me that while he preferred waiting until the study is completed, he can live with this compromise," Nelson said.

"We are increasingly confident about the Lieberman compromise -- and that this could very well be a historic week in the United States Congress," Lieberman spokesman Marshall Wittmann said Wednesday, after Nelson's announcement.

Repeal advocates have targeted five on-the-fence Democrats on the committee, including Nelson, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Jim Webb of Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida. Both Nelsons will vote in favor of the amendment, Webb will not, and the decisions of Byrd and Bayh have not yet been made public.

Collins' GOP colleague Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the committee’s newest member, has also been heavily lobbied by rights advocates but announced Tuesday he would not support the amendment. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit