Gay rights groups plan August lobbying blitz to repeal ‘Don’t ask, don't tell'

Gay-rights activists will lobby senators in 10 states this month to rally support for repealing the law that bars openly gay people from serving in the military.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) — two organizations on the front lines of the repeal fight — will send staffers and allies to the offices of senators from Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Virginia as part of their Countdown 2010 advocacy campaign.

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“As we approach the waning days of this congressional session, we must continue to demand immediate action on critical legislation,” HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “LGBT voters and our allies will be keenly aware of congressional action or inaction as the November elections approach.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday said he wanted to see the upper chamber take up defense authorization in September, possibly right after the Senate returns from recess. The hefty defense policy bill contains a provision that would repeal the military’s ban, commonly known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Supporters of the “Don’t ask” repeal are pressing Congress to act while Democrats still hold majorities in both chambers. Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of SLDN, said the defense authorization bill containing the repeal provision is unlikely to move forward in the Senate without 60 votes in favor — a level of support that may be unreachable after the midterms.

Gay-rights advocates also need enough support in the Senate to ward off any GOP attempts to strike or weaken the repeal provision, which might require only 51 votes, Sarvis added.

“This should be a more bipartisan vote,” Sarvis said, because it is a “major” military personnel matter.

“We hope that there will be more Republicans and more conservative Democrats [supporting repeal],” he added.

The chief congressional proponents of ending “Don’t ask” — Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) — in May reached an agreement with the Obama administration to scrap the law only after the Pentagon completes a review of repeal implementation. President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must certify that the repeal can be achieved consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.

To make the “Don’t ask” vote palatable to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Lieberman, a senior committee member, agreed to allow Congress 60 days to review the implementation policy once certified.

The Senate Armed Services panel voted 16-12 to repeal the law in late May. Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against the measure, while Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the only Republican to vote for it.

The House included the repeal provision in its version of the 2011 defense authorization bill. The Senate has yet to vote on its version; gay-rights advocates want a commitment for the vote to be held by mid-September.

Senate Republicans, backed by Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), are eyeing a provision that would require all service chiefs to certify that a repeal can be implemented consistent with those military standards listed above.

The way the congressional provisions are written now, only Obama, Gates and Mullen have to provide that certification.

In letters solicited by McCain, the service chiefs in May said they wanted Congress to delay voting on the issue until Dec. 1, after the Pentagon finishes a review of how the military should carry out the changes.

Gay-rights groups argue that the Republicans’ proposal to include the service chiefs in the certification process would be “a killer amendment” that would delay a repeal of “Don’t ask” for years.

Supporters of repeal are fighting any efforts to change the existing provision in the Senate. They want to make sure it is similar to the one passed in the House so that it does not become an item of negotiation between the two chambers when they write the final defense authorization bill, Sarvis explained.

Conference negotiations on the authorization are likely to be intense. Levin is the only one of the Big Four — the chairmen and ranking members of both chambers’ Armed Services committees — who backs repeal. McCain and Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the top Republican on the House panel, are fighting it, as is Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee

Sarvis said SLDN and HRC are still weighing whether to buy advertising space in certain media markets to lobby for repeal. He said representatives would meet with editorial boards in the targeted states to make the issue more visible.

Sarvis predicts the final defense authorization bill will pass during the lame-duck session after the midterms. Defense authorization is usually seen as a must-pass bill because it carries critical policies for the Pentagon, including the yearly authorization for the military’s pay raises and benefits.

—This story was posted at 12:52 p.m. and updated at 7:51 p.m.