How Democrats lost ‘don’t ask’ repeal!
By Liz Goodwin
Posted September 22nd 2010
The Senate shot down a proposal to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay service Tuesday in a party-line test vote — dashing the hopes of gay activists who thought this was their best shot to repeal the 17-year-old law, which is unpopular with most Americans.
Now that the move has failed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to tack on the measure to the annual $726 billion defense authorization bill has come under scrutiny. Republican senators — and two Democratic ones, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln — who are skittish in the heated runup to the midterms may have voted differently after November.
Reid probably reasoned that Republicans didn’t have enough votes to strip the “don’t ask” amendment out of the bill, and wouldn’t filibuster the entire defense bill for fear of being accused of hijacking military funding for political reasons. But Republicans turned that logic on its head, arguing that Democrats were the ones who were playing politics by not allowing them to add amendments to the bill.
Even Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who voted for the repeal in committee in May, decided to join the filibuster. The vote was 56-43, four votes shy of the 60-vote super-majority necessary to advance the bill.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin said in a news conference that this was the first time senators had filibustered a defense bill — legislation that historically brings together Democrats and Republicans. (Levin also said the DREAM Act, a controversial immigration proposal, would again be added as an amendment when senators try to pass the defense bill after the elections.)
Here’s a rundown of what went wrong:
- The timing of the vote gave Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, among others, the grounds to argue that the move was “political” and unrelated to the well-being of the military. They argued that Democrats just wanted to fulfill one of President Obama’s campaign promises before the big election, writes Mark Thompson at Time’s Swampland blog in a comprehensive rundown of the debate.
- Four of the Republican senators whom legislation advocates were hoping would vote for the repeal — Collins, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and George Voinovich of Ohio — argued that Reid’s decision to block Republican amendments was unfair and a deal-breaker. The Log Cabin Republicans, a group that lobbies for gay rights and the “don’t ask” repeal, said in a statement that Reid displayed “partisan arrogance” in not compromising with Republicans. (Levin said that if Republicans had agreed to debate the bill, all amendments would have been considered.)
- Though both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Admiral Mike Mullen have endorsed a repeal of the policy, the Defense Department’s review of how it should be implemented won’t be finished until Dec. 1. McCain argued that reversing the ban now would be premature (though the legislation would have given the Pentagon the final word on how to schedule its phaseout of the policy).
- McCain also argued Tuesday on the floor that the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Forces oppose the repeal, which puts them at odds with Mullen and Gates. McCain chastised Mullen and Gates in February when they said they were comfortable with repeal. “Your statement is one that is clearly biased, without the view of Congress being taken into consideration,” McCain said then. “I’m happy to say we still have a Congress of the United States that would have to pass a law to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, despite your efforts to repeal it in many respects by fiat.”
- The coup de grace might have been Gen. James Amos, who is soon to lead the Marines and testified before the vote that he thought the new policy would distract troops who are fighting in Afghanistan.
Congress isn’t likely to wade into the controversy again anytime soon. “The whole thing is a political train wreck,” Richard Socarides, a former White House adviser on gay rights during the Clinton administration, told the Associated Press. Right now, the only two people left who can drive that train are President Obama, and Harry Reid.
Gay rights groups told the Washington Blade that they are already turning their focus to the courts. They said they plan to ask the Justice Department to forgo an appeal to the recent California federal judge’s decision to strike down “don’t ask, don’t tell” as unconstitutional. The Justice Department has not yet announced whether it plans to mount an appeal.