WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that for 17 years has forced gays desiring to serve in the military to conceal their sexual identity.
The 250-175 vote propels the issue to the Senate for what could be the last chance for now to end the 1993 law that forbids recruiters from asking about sexual orientation while prohibiting soldiers from acknowledging that they are gay.
It's "the only law in the country that requires people to be dishonest or be fired if they choose to be honest," said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they are committed to bringing the bill to the floor before Congress adjourns for the year. But they are challenged by opposition from some Republicans and a daunting agenda that includes finishing work on legislation to fund the government and ratifying a nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Failure to overturn the policy this year could relegate the issue to the back burner next year when Republicans, who are far less supportive of allowing openly gay individuals to serve in the military, take over the House and gain strength in the Senate.
"Now is the time for us to act," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and "close the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation."
Many Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, argue that it would be a mistake for the military to undergo a major cultural change while the nation is fighting two wars.
Implementation of any new policy should begin "when our singular focus is no longer on combat operations or preparing units for combat," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
The issue also has split the military. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior military leaders support lifting the restrictions on gay service, pointing to a recent Pentagon study showing that most people in uniform don't object to serving with gays. But the head of the Marine Corps, Commandant Gen. James Amos, repeated his opposition this week, saying that lifting the ban during wartime could cost lives. "I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," he said.
The White House, in issuing a statement in support of the repeal, stressed that the change would go into effect only after the president, the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that implementation is consistent with military readiness, recruiting and retention and unit cohesion.
The House last May voted 234-194 in favor of repeal legislation as part of a larger defense bill. The measure has stalled twice in the Senate, where Republicans have objected to taking up the defense bill ladened with contentious issues, including "don't ask, don't tell."
Joe Solmonese, the president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said Wednesday's vote means the House has confirmed for the second time what military leaders, most troops and the American public have been saying, that "the only thing that matters on the battlefield is the ability to do the job."
"It is up to the Senate to consign this failed and discriminatory law to the dustbin of history," Solmonese added.
The House, in introducing the stand-alone bill, sought to avoid the complications of combining it with a general defense bill. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., are also promoting a stand-alone bill in the Senate and supporters say they have the 60 votes for passage if they can get it to the Senate floor.
A major hurdle has been a Republican pledge to block all legislation until the Senate completes work on tax cut and government funding. The Senate on Wednesday passed the compromise on extending tax cuts worked out by the White House and Republicans.
More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law.
The Obama administration, while supporting the repeal, is appealing the ruling of a California federal judge that the ban on gays serving openly in the military is unconstitutional. The administration says Congress should overturn the policy. But gay rights groups say they will shift their focus back to the courts if Congress fails to act.