Groups supporting repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military are preparing for a full-throttled lobbying assault when lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break.
With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promising to bring up the defense authorization bill that includes the repeal, the groups are now focusing on a handful of Republican and Democratic Senators who will determine its fate.
“It is a very important moment for our community, and we should not leave any opportunity on the table,” said Fred Sainz, vice president for communications and marketing for the gay-rights organization Human Rights Campaign.
Gay activists view consideration of the measure in the lame-duck session as their best hope of doing away with the policy because a more Republican Congress next year is unlikely to take up the matter.
However, there have been differences between the various lobbying organizations over strategy — with some groups questioning the wisdom of using celebrities, such as Lady Gaga, to promote their cause on Capitol Hill and others differing over how much to criticize Senate Democratic leadership on procedural matters.
The HRC has committed $2.8 million to the latest lobbying effort that includes placing ads in newspapers and on Facebook and Google to pressure Senators. The group also is deploying staff members to eight states to recruit veterans to speak out for the repeal. Those states are Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
Some moderate Republican and Democratic Senators from those states have said that before making a decision on the policy they want to see a Pentagon report, which was scheduled to be released Wednesday but is now set to be unveiled Tuesday, on the potential effect of the repeal.
The Senators include Republicans Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dick Lugar (Ind.), George Voinovich (Ohio), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Scott Brown (Mass.) as well as Democrats Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.). Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) is the only Republican who voted for the repeal in committee. But she joined other Republicans in blocking consideration of the defense bill in September, citing Reid’s unwillingness to allow debate on a host of amendments.
This time, some groups say part of their lobbying efforts will focus more on legislative procedure such as pressing Reid to allow the consideration of more amendments to make it easier for Republicans to vote for the bill.
“We are sort of past the point now of being at the grass-roots stage,” said Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, which advocates on behalf of gay and lesbian troops.
Nicholson said his criticism of Reid for his handling of the defense authorization bill has not gone over well with the Senate Democratic leader. He said his group was not invited to a meeting of gay-rights and liberal organizations in Reid’s office before the Thanksgiving break to discuss the repeal effort.
The meeting was organized by Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, and included Jim Messina, who is President Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff, and Phil Schiliro, the assistant to the president for legislative affairs.
A participant at the meeting, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said that the message was encouraging.
“I came away convinced that the Majority Leader was serious about bringing this up and doing it in a way that Senators on both sides of the aisle will get to offer amendments,” he said.
Representatives from the HRC and the Center for American Progress also attended the meeting.
Despite promises from Reid’s office, some gay-rights leaders are cautious about predicting success, noting that there are a number of obstacles including the Senate’s ambitious agenda, which already has tax and spending bills penciled in to consider in the remaining weeks of the lame-duck session.
“Time is our biggest enemy,” said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Cooper, who has also been critical of Reid for his procedural handling of the matter, said that he has spent much of his time shuttling between the offices of Republican Senators he considers easiest to persuade on the repeal. In the past two weeks, Cooper said he has visited 13 Senate offices and has come away convinced that nine GOP lawmakers are really in play.
The Log Cabin Republicans also is holding a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday to help pay for its legal case against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A federal judge in California this year ruled the policy was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court has allowed the ban to remain in place pending federal appeals.
The activists also said they are unsure about the intentions of Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who will be sworn in after Thanksgiving. While in the House, Kirk supported enforcement against gay hate crimes but opposed repealing the policy on gays in the military. Nicholson said he didn’t know which way Kirk would vote but noted that his ex-wife showed up at an event sponsored by Servicemembers United on repeal of the policy earlier this year.
Not All Gaga for Star Power
The last time the repeal measure came up, in September, the lobbying effort was accompanied by a public relations campaign by Lady Gaga, who headlined a rally in Maine intended to pressure Collins and Snowe.
But a number of gay-rights activists questioned the effectiveness of employing the flamboyant star, who donned a dress made of raw meat earlier this year, to sway members of Congress.
One gay-rights official called Lady Gaga’s participation in the effort “a total unmitigated disaster from a legislative point of view.” The official said that many lawmakers and Pentagon officials had no idea who the performer was.
Nicholson said that Lady Gaga’s appearance at a rally in Portland, Maine’s largest city, “left a bad taste in Sen. Collins’ mouth and some of her staff.”
But Sarvis, whose group coordinated with Lady Gaga on the issue, defended the performer’s role, saying she helped raise the profile of the issue with millions of young people.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighs in again in a timely fashion,” Sarvis said.
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.