Gay rights groups on Monday coupled behind-the-scenes lobbying with the more unconventional tactic of enlisting pop star Lady Gaga to press moderate GOP Senators to support a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
The activists view today's scheduled Senate vote to open debate on the defense authorization bill — which includes the repeal — as their best hope to end the ban on openly gay service members. The likelihood that Republicans will pick up seats in both chambers in the midterm elections could make passage of the repeal much more difficult in the next Congress.
"It's the eleventh hour, and we are on the one-yard line," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.
He said the HRC and its allies have asked some of their most influential supporters to call their Senators.
HRC President Joe Solmonese is expected to appear today with Democratic leaders, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), to discuss the vote.
Levin acknowledged Monday that he still was looking for the 60 votes needed to move the bill. Democrats and groups that support repeal have targeted a handful of moderate Republicans, particularly Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Collins, in particular, has been the focus of their attention because she supported the repeal when it came up in the Armed Services Committee.
However, on Monday, the offices of both Senators issued statements that suggested they were unlikely to vote to proceed with the legislation.
[IMGCAP(1)]The activists are also focusing on a handful of other Republicans, including retiring Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) and Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.).
In an interesting twist, DADT opponents hold out some hope that they can win over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who recently lost her GOP primary bid to tea-party-backed candidate Joe Miller.
A gay rights official said Murkowski might be so angry at her party's leaders that she would cross them on the procedural vote on the defense measure.
While Murkowski's vote may be a long shot, the DADT effort is drawing more than the usual cast of Washington lobbyists.
To nudge the Maine Senators, Lady Gaga, the colorful performer who has spoken out and tweeted frequently on the issue, headlined a rally Monday in the state's largest city, Portland.
The event was sponsored by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which was created to help gay military members fight the policy.
Some critics questioned whether a pop star who recently drew headlines for wearing a dress composed of slabs of raw meat would have much sway over lawmakers. But Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN's executive director who was in Portland on Monday, said the performer could reach a broader audience, which could bring pressure on the Senators.
"I have no illusions [the Senators] will cast their vote solely because of what Lady Gaga says," said Sarvis, an Army veteran. But he said that she "casts a spotlight on the issue itself. She doesn't talk about procedure."
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay rights group, was skeptical that Lady Gaga would make a difference.
"You have to question how many Senators know or care who she is," he said.
Cooper added that some of the more liberal gay groups have misdirected their lobbying. He said they should try to persuade Majority Leader Harry Reid to deal with the Republican complaints that they are not being allowed to consider more amendments to the defense authorization measure.
The Log Cabin Republicans on Monday issued a statement calling on the Nevada Democrat to compromise with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"This historic achievement should not be scuttled because the Democratic majority has decided to exclude Republicans from the Legislative process," the statement said.
Collins endorsed the view that Republicans should be able to offer more amendments, according to a statement from her office.
"She would like the Senate to proceed to a full and open debate on the Defense Authorization bill, with members able to offer amendments on all relevant issues," according to the statement by her spokesman, Kevin Kelley. "She has encouraged Senator Reid to work with Republican leaders to negotiate such an agreement so that the defense bill can be brought to the floor this week."
Snowe also issued a statement that indicated she was unlikely to support moving ahead on the measure.
She said the Senate should be able to debate more than the three amendments that Reid is allowing. She also said that while the "don't ask, don't tell" policy needs a thorough review, Congress should first be able to review the Pentagon report on the policy. That report is expected on Dec. 1.
Democrats, however, say the procedural complaints are merely an excuse by a number of Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to prevent the elimination of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which was put in place during the Clinton administration. McCain has repeatedly threatened to filibuster the repeal of the policy.
Mitch Stewart, director of Organizing for America, an arm of the Democratic National Committee, sent a message to supporters Monday urging them to call McCain's office and "ask him to stop standing in the way."