Breaking a new barrier in gay rights, President Obama signed a bill Wednesday that sets in motion a repeal of the military's ban on openly gay troops.
Full repeal still will require an eventual certification by Mr. Obama and the top civilian and uniformed military officials that combat readiness won't suffer, but all of those officials back repeal. Mr. Obama said that makes it just a matter of time before homosexuals can sign up, and already-serving troops can announce their sexual orientation.
"Your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military in the world," Mr. Obama said at a signing ceremony, making good on one of his campaign promises to repeal the policy that, since the beginning of the Clinton administration, had governed homosexuality in the military.
Indeed, the signing ceremony at times struck notes more like a campaign rally, including cheers of Mr. Obama's campaign slogan "Yes, we can!"
Gay-rights groups, which have been fielding calls from troops asking when the ban officially would be lifted, say more than 14,000 troops have been dismissed from the military in the 17 years the policy has been in place.
Known as "don't ask, don't tell," the military implemented the policy in 1993 as a way of following through on legislation Congress passed to exclude gay troops. Under the policy, the military has taken action against gay troops only after their sexual orientation becomes known.
Mr. Obama took pains to warn that the policy remains in place for now but that the change shouldn't take long.
"We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done," he said, though it's unclear whether he will halt dismissals in the interim.
Overturning the policy has been a priority for gay-rights groups, who said the ban represented the only federal policy that mandated someone be fired for their sexual orientation.
The debate has divided the military community, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen supporting repeal but three of the four service chiefs opposing it.
And a long review Mr. Obama commissioned to figure out a way to repeal the ban found mixed attitudes, with most troops who responded appearing unconcerned, but with Marine combat troops particularly worried about openly gay troops hurting unit cohesion.
Those objections had appeared to halt the bill, including just a few weeks ago, when Senate Democrats were unable to overcome a Republican-led filibuster on the broad defense policy bill that included repeal language.
But a late deal between Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and a push from House Democratic leaders to bring up a new, stand-alone bill, breathed life back into the repeal effort.
That culminated in a 65-31 vote in the Senate this weekend, with eight Republicans joining Democrats to overturn the policy.
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