‘Don’t Ask’ Repeal Finds Influential Ally

Posted February 23, 2010 at 6:37pm

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (ID-Conn.) announcement that he will lead the charge to end the military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has given advocates renewed hope for a deal on the issue this year.

Lieberman, who was tapped by White House officials to lead the push on the issue, takes the reins after a months-long effort by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to introduce legislation with bipartisan co-sponsors. But Gillibrand, an appointed Senator facing a tough re-election this year, does not have Lieberman’s institutional knowledge, nor his track record of bipartisan deal-making.

“I think Sen. Lieberman is the right leader given his record on defense,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said, noting Lieberman’s hawkish record on military matters and progressive bend on social issues. “He’s a perfect leader for this.”

Lieberman has opposed the policy of not allowing openly gay personnel to serve in the military since it was implemented in 1993 under President Bill Clinton. While the Independent, who caucuses with Democrats, regularly gives heartburn to the party’s progressive wing on defense issues, his socially liberal streak uniquely positions him in terms of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Chris Barron, chairman of GOProud’s board, called Lieberman’s move “spectacular.”

“It makes a huge difference,” Barron said. “It doesn’t really make sense to have Sen. Gillibrand lead on this issue. It makes sense for Sen. Lieberman to lead on this issue.”

Barron, however, was less enthused about the White House’s efforts.

[IMGCAP(1)]While President Barack Obama called for a full repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in his State of the Union address this year and last year told guests at a Human Rights Campaign dinner that he would end the controversial policy, Barron charged that Obama has done little else to advance the issue.

“Mentioning this at a black-tie dinner is one thing, but the president made those comments when we didn’t even know who would be the lead on the issue,” Barron said.

Lieberman will likely introduce legislation next week. However, despite his close relationship with GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), it remains doubtful whether she or any other Republican will sign on as a co-sponsor. Additionally, Democratic moderates on the Armed Services Committee are less inclined to back the bill before the Defense Department completes a yearlong review of the policy and the potential side effects of a full repeal.

“My general predisposition is if people want to sacrifice themselves for our country, we should honor that,” Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said. “But I thought the generals were going to look at the issue, and I’d like to hear what they have to say.”

Other moderates on the Armed Services panel, including Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.), expressed similar concern during a hearing on the issue earlier this month featuring Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two military advisers announced at that meeting plans for a rollback of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, along with a yearlong review to determine the best course for implementing a full repeal.

But speaking before the Armed Services panel Tuesday, Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, urged lawmakers not to move legislation before the military completes its review.

“I do have serious concerns about the impact of repeal of the law on a force that is fully engaged in two wars and has been at war for eight and a half years,” Casey said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on the Armed Services panel and has a history of striking bipartisan deals with Lieberman, indicated Tuesday that he won’t sign on to anything soon.

“You’ve got to convince me the policy isn’t working and you’ve got to convince me that we need to change it,” Graham said.