House Republicans apparently have pulled out of staff-level negotiations over the defense authorization bill out of fear that even if the Senate passes a measure without language repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will insert it anyway.
Bob Simmons, minority staff director for the House Armed Services Committee, told other staffers in an e-mail Monday that ranking member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) “has directed me to withdraw from the pre-conferencing effort” out of fear that Pelosi will push the repeal language no matter what is agreed to in bipartisan talks between the House and Senate. The e-mail was accidentally posted to a broader list, and Roll Call obtained a copy.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) are in talks about how to move a defense authorization bill to the floor in the coming weeks. House Armed Services staff members, including Simmons, were also part of staff-level discussions to smooth out differences between the House and Senate bills in an effort to speed conference negotiations, McKeon spokesman Josh Holly said.
But without assurances from Pelosi’s office that the Speaker would not add repeal language back into the measure, House Republican staffers have fled those talks.
“There’s very little time to try and get the defense authorization act pushed through,” Holly said. “The conversations were about what the options are to try and move the bill forwards and get it signed by the president as soon as possible.”
The bill passed by the House in May includes language to repeal the policy banning openly gay people from serving in the military. It also includes language that would allow military hospitals overseas to perform abortions. McCain has repeatedly said he would block the measure from consideration on the floor if it contains those provisions.
Levin and McCain are said to be discussing ways to strip those controversial pieces from the legislation in order to move the bill during the upcoming lame-duck session.
But any major changes accepted in the Senate would also have to be approved by the House. According to Simmons’ e-mail, House Republicans fear Pelosi would still find a way to push the DADT repeal and abortion language even if the House considers a Senate-passed bill that is void of such language.
“The Speaker could simply create either a self-executing rule and re-attach DADT and abortion,” Simmons wrote to top staffers for Levin, McCain and House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.). “Since the majority had the votes before, it is safe to assume this would again pass in the House. Thus the House would send it back to the Senate where it would likely pass with DADT repeal and abortions included.”
Neither Simmons nor Pelosi’s office immediately responded to a request for comment.
A House Democratic aide chastised McCain for stalling action on the bill and said, “Republicans are playing political games with the defense bill.
“There’s no way it can pass the Senate with the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal, and it doesn’t make sense they’re walking away from all the other provisions in the bill because of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” the aide added.
Conservative groups including Americans United for Life and the Center for Military Readiness maintain that the Senate will not approve a defense bill with the DADT repeal this year.
“From logistical reasons alone, this would not be a good use of the time of the U.S. Senate,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness. “And so on reasons of principle as well as logistics there’s just no way that Sen. McCain would allow that legislation to pass.”
Some gay rights activists suggest Levin could negotiate a scenario in which the Senate considers a stripped-down defense bill without the DADT repeal and bring that up as a separate vote during the lame duck. But such a move is opposed by other activists who say the only way to ensure a repeal of the 1993 policy enacted under President Bill Clinton is to attach it to the defense measure, which in general enjoys broad bipartisan support.
The Senate voted 56-43 against a procedural motion to bring the bill to the floor in September. At the time, Republicans blasted Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for limiting debate on the measure and for attempting to attach an immigration-related amendment to the bill.
Progressive groups including the Human Rights Campaign and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network are pressuring Reid to commit floor time to the defense authorization bill during the lame-duck session. Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also issued a joint statement Tuesday calling on Senate leaders to “act immediately to debate and pass a defense authorization bill and repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ during the lame-duck session.”
Supporters suggest that with the midterm elections over, Members will be more free to vote in favor of the defense bill, which among other things also provides pay raises to service members. Furthermore, the Pentagon is scheduled to release on Dec. 1 a yearlong study on the effects of a repeal, and supporters of the repeal are expecting a positive review that could give political cover to Republicans who are deciding their stance. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates also recently called on Congress to pass the repeal this year.
“Like Defense Secretary Gates, Sen. Reid strongly supports the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to help strengthen our volunteer force and is continuing to work toward passing the repeal this year. He, of course, can’t do it alone,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. “The Senator needs Republicans to at least agree to have a debate on this issue, a debate he firmly believes the Senate should have.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.