Senate Democrats Finally Ready to Move on DADT

Posted September 4, 2010 at 2:00pm

Senate Democrats are finally ready to press ahead with a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy banning gays from openly serving, hoping that a key objector — Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain — is ready to soften his opposition.

Democrats had put the issue — contained in the Defense Authorization bill — on the backburner until after McCain’s Aug. 24 primary. McCain, who prevailed in the race against conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, is opposed to overturning the 1993 policy until after the Pentagon completes a review of how such a move would affect the military.

But Senate Democrats are hoping McCain, ranking member on Armed Services, may be willing to let the defense measure and the DADT language move forward, since he no longer has to worry about a challenge from his party’s right flank. They are looking to bring the bill up as soon as Sept. 20.

“We don’t expect much pushback from McCain,” one Democratic aide said.

Before adjourning for the break last month, McCain told reporters he would not filibuster the Defense Authorization bill. Still, he objected to a unanimous consent request from Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to bring up the bill when Senators returned to work in September.

“I’m not going to allow us to move forward, and I will be discussing with my leaders and the 41 Members of this side of the aisle as to whether we’re going to move forward with a bill that contains the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy repealed before a meaningful survey of the impact on battle effectiveness and morale of the men and women who are serving this nation in uniform,” McCain told Levin in the August floor exchange.

McCain hasn’t indicated what he might do when Members turn to the issue again, but Democrats are hoping he approaches it with a fresh perspective.

Gay rights organizations have been pressing Cogress all year to repeal DADT.

Democrats are largely unified behind the effort, although Virginia Sen. Jim Webb shares McCain’s position that Congress shouldn’t act until the Pentagon has completed its review, which is slated for release in December. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine)was the lone Republican to vote for the DADT amendment in committee.

Still, Webb and Republican Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Susan Collins (Maine) all voted to send the defense measure out of Armed Services Committee with the repeal amendment intact. Democrats hope they can convince a few Republicans, including Collins and Brown, to support the defense bill on the floor.

“We are optimistic that the full Senate will consider the DOD Authorization bill when they return from recess this month,” said Allison Herwitt, legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign. “It is critically important that Congress end the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” law by sending the repeal language included in the DOD Authorization bill to the President’s desk for signature.”

But the debate will not go down without GOP opposition. While Republicans acknowledge they lack the votes to filibuster the bill or strike the DADT language, they may offer an amendment to try to weaken the repeal. The Senate’s DADT amendment is the same as the one approved by the House in May, so any change to the language would have to be smoothed out in conference and approved by both chambers.

“They must think there’s some value in having a debate on “don’t ask, don’t tell,'” a GOP leadership aide said. “But if they want to use the defense authorization to play games, then they’re going to have problems.”

The defense authorization measure, an annual bill that typically passes with bipartisan support, includes a handful of other controversial provisions that could prove dicey for vulnerable Democrats this fall. For instance, Republicans have targeted a provision that would allow military hospitals to perform abortions.

But beyond the politics of the defense bill, the calendar may also complicate its passage. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is looking to move a long-stalled small business lending bill, a continuing resolution to fund the government and a food safety bill. Senate Democrats will also have to devise a plan to extend some or all of the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush.