Votes Looming on ‘Don’t Ask’ Repeal

Posted May 24, 2010 at 6:30pm

Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday stepped up their push for repeal of the ban on openly gay individuals in the military, setting up the first votes in both chambers as soon as this week.

To smooth passage, Democratic leaders and gay rights groups are eyeing a compromise that would delay implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal until the Defense Department completes its policy review later this year.

Lawmakers would cede to military brass the rule-making power for the policy change rather than enshrining a nondiscrimination policy in law. And they would make the change contingent on the president, the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certifying it could be implemented without compromising military readiness standards.

The repeal could move forward on parallel tracks in the Senate and House this week. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) plans to offer the compromise language as an amendment to the defense authorization bill when the Senate Armed Services Committee marks up that legislation this week. House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), an opponent of repeal, didn’t add the language to his panel’s version of the defense measure. But leaders will likely allow Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq War veteran leading the charge in the House to scrap the ban, to offer the repeal as an amendment when the measure hits the floor at the end of the week.

Lieberman, Murphy and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) announced Monday evening that they had reached an agreement with the White House on amendment language. Peter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the new language had the support of the White House because it allays concerns raised by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The burst of activity comes after months of conflicting signals from the administration about how, or whether, to proceed with the change this year. President Barack Obama set the bar in his State of the Union speech in January by saying he would work to repeal the law this year. And while Gates and Mullen have been generally supportive, they wrote a letter to Skelton late last month asking “in the strongest possible terms” that Congress hold off on any action until the military wraps its review of the policy.

Congressional Democratic leaders, however, have maintained the drumbeat for repeal. Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday was back in her San Francisco district — the birthplace of the gay rights movement — addressing the group Equality California when she reaffirmed her commitment to moving on gay rights priorities this year. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ I feel quite certain, will be a memory come Christmas,” she said.

With action on the defense bill pending in both chambers this week, the White House on Monday convened a meeting with gay rights advocates to present the emerging compromise. At the same time, another team of White House aides trekked to the Hill to huddle with Congressional leadership staffers and other key players.

On Monday evening, Murphy, Lieberman and Levin wrote to Obama asking for the administration’s official response to their proposal.

With the framework in place, Lieberman is working to muster support for the compromise language among committee members. Levin plans to bring the matter up this week. “But that doesn’t mean we have the votes,” he said.

Besides Levin, there are just four other Armed Services Democrats — Sens. Roland Burris (Ill.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Ted Kaufman (Del.) and Mark Udall (Colo.) — who are co-sponsors of Lieberman’s bill.

It remains unclear how many of those Members would support the compromise language that Lieberman plans to offer.

Gay rights advocates who have been working to build support among committee Democrats sent a letter Monday to Sen. Jim Webb, a member of the panel, urging the Virginian to support repeal.

Lieberman’s amendment is unlikely to draw much support from Armed Services Republicans. Sen. John McCain, the panel’s ranking member, said Monday night that he had not yet seen the compromise language but that his strong preference remained to allow the Pentagon to finish its study before Congress calls for repeal.

“Why not just wait until the study is complete?” the Arizona Republican asked, describing efforts to move before then as “premature.”

Supporters of the compromise approach hope that its nod toward ensuring repeal does not jeopardize readiness will help draw more broad support.

From a tactical standpoint, it would be much easier for repeal advocates to add the language to the defense authorization bill before it reaches the Senate floor because that would effectively lower to 41 votes the threshold for retaining the language, rather than the 60 votes that almost certainly would be needed to add repeal language on the floor. If Lieberman’s amendment is rejected in committee but the House passes a bill this week containing repeal language, that would give Senate Democratic leaders the option of taking up a base bill that includes repeal language during floor consideration some time after the Memorial Day recess.

The compromise language that Lieberman plans to put forth this week is similar to an approach that Levin advocated earlier this month. Levin said on May 11 that he wanted to move forward with repeal but delay implementation until 90 days after the Pentagon’s report was complete, adding that he hoped to be able to muster the votes to add the repeal to the defense authorization bill.

Senate Armed Services subcommittee markups are slated to begin Tuesday, with the full committee markup commencing Wednesday afternoon and likely to end either late Thursday or Friday.