Seventeen years ago, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the law that created “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the controversial military policy that banned openly gay men and women from serving.
On Saturday, it took Republican cooperation in the U.S. Senate — including Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — to repeal the policy.
That bit of political irony was not lost on Collins, who is known for her centrist views and who led the Republicans during this battle.
“The bottom line for me is, if a person who is qualified wants to serve our country, to put on our uniform and be deployed to a war zone, we ought to welcome that service,” Maine’s junior senator said Saturday in a telephone interview after the vote. “I view this as a matter of fairness and justice, but also as a matter that we should want to have talents of anyone who wants to serve.”
Collins and Snowe were among eight Senate Republicans who helped overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in a 65-31 vote during a rare Saturday session. Earlier this month, Collins was the sole Republican to support ending debate on a bill that would have repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” but that measure fell short of the votes needed. The bill passed Saturday now goes to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature, but it could take many months before the Pentagon implements fully the new policy.
“Given the current demands on U.S. service members in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the legislation passed today does not direct immediate repeal, but rather requires the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in consultation with the service chiefs, to develop a detailed plan prior to executing repeal of the policy,” Sen. Snowe said in a statement after the vote.
Earlier this year, Collins was the lone Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee to vote to include language to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the Senate Defense Authorization bill. That bill ultimately failed, but she and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, introduced a stand-alone bill, a strategy that proved successful.
Every Democrat supported the repeal on Saturday, as did the two Senate independents. Joining Maine’s senators in crossing party lines were Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, George Voinovich of Ohio, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
The U.S House of Representatives already voted Wednesday to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” by 250-175. Maine Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both Democrats, voted for the repeal.
President Obama called Saturday’s vote overturning a 17-year military policy a “historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend.”
He singled out Collins in his statement.
“I want to thank Majority Leader [Harry] Reid, Senators Lieberman and Collins and the countless others who have worked so hard to get this done,” Obama said. “It is time to close this chapter in our history.”
The Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization that supports fairness, freedom and equality for gay and lesbian Americans, also praised Collins’ leadership on repealing DADT.
“[We] are proud of our Senate allies who have voted to make our military stronger. Senator Collins, in particular, has long been the point of the spear in fighting for repeal among Republicans,” R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans executive director, said in a statement. “She showed tremendous leadership in crossing the aisle to make this vote happen, continuing the fight when many thought hope was lost.”
Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, said Mainers should be proud of their entire congressional delegation for unanimously supporting the repeal.
“Finally after years of anguish and silence, the proud women and men from Maine in the service of our nation can speak openly and honestly about who they are and who they love,” Smith said.
Although Saturday’s vote was partisan, as so many things in Washington are, Collins said the historic repeal is more a human issue. A few years ago, she said, a retired Navy admiral from the Bangor area wrote the senator a letter.
“He felt strongly this law should be repealed, and it was his letter that started me thinking deeply about the issue and gathering information and talking to people,” she said. “Society has changed so much during the past 17 years. People are much more accepting and much more understanding that our country cannot afford to waste talents of anyone.”