Democrats send conflicting signals on repealing ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy

The White House and congressional leaders are sending contradictory signals on scrapping the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

While President Barack Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agree the Clinton-era law should be repealed, it remains unclear whether that will happen this year or next.

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And if it doesn’t happen this year, changing the law will be far more difficult in 2011, when there are likely to be fewer Democrats in Congress.

In testimony to Congress this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it is not a matter of whether the military prepares to make the change, but how it will prepare.

The how, and the when, are looming questions. And Democrats aren’t on the same page.
Gates said the Pentagon will conduct a yearlong study on how best to implement change to the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.

But Vice President Joe Biden indicated on Tuesday that the White House does not want to wait until 2011. "By this year's end, we will have eliminated the policy," Biden said during an appearance on MSNBC.

Meanwhile, Pelosi on Thursday did not commit to a clear legislative timeline on “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“It would be my preference to go first with legislation,” Pelosi told reporters. “But we’ll have to examine and see what the model is for what the review is.”

Pelosi stressed that the study would reveal how the repeal would be executed. She also noted the Pentagon review would not prevent Congress from taking action.

A House Democratic leadership aide said, “The administration must complete their study before Congress acts. Congress can only legislate the change if we know what to replace the existing policy with. Hopefully the Pentagon’s review will proceed very quickly.”

Senate Democrats have a different view.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has long opposed “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” said he is considering passing a moratorium on the current law to halt the dismissals of gay military members. The moratorium could be put in this year’s defense authorization bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is questioning why the Pentagon needs a yearlong study.

“Sen. Reid believes it is time to repeal this law, which has hurt our military readiness. We have several people in our caucus, like Chairman Levin and Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand [D-N.Y.] who have been leaders on this issue. Sen. Reid looks forward to working with them as we consider the next steps,” Reid spokeswoman Regan LaChapelle said in a statement to The Hill.

Asked in July whether he could support an 18-month moratorium on enforcing the prohibition of openly gay people serving in the military, Reid indicated he would be supportive of such a measure.

At the time, he said, “We’re having trouble getting people into the military. And I think that we shouldn’t turn down anybody that’s willing to fight for our country, certainly based on sexual orientation.”

It remains to be seen if a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” moratorium has the votes to pass Congress. Most Republicans oppose a change in the policy, and the vote would be a tough one for centrist Democrats in challenging reelection races.

Pelosi late last year said she will not schedule politically difficult votes until the Senate acts.

Critics of the military’s policy want action now.

“We should have thousands, millions of e-mails going to every senator’s office,” said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that has been at the forefront of the repeal fight. “We’ve got to fire up the Senate. We need to show the president that we are following through.”

It’s unclear whether Levin has enough votes to pass any legislation at his committee’s level and whether he would have to bring it up as an amendment to the Senate floor — a move that would surely need 60 votes for passage.

Other than the yearlong study, Gates is also directing the Pentagon to conduct a 45-day review of the regulations used to implement “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Gates will be presented with recommended changes to those rules that, within the existing law, “will enforce this policy in a more humane and fair manner.”

A looming question in the months ahead is: Will the Pentagon submit a legislative package that calls for a moratorium or a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?

The Pentagon customarily sends legislative language as the Armed Services Committees prepares to take up the national defense authorization bills. Any proposal on the repeal could indicate that the administration will actively engage with Congress to press for action this year.

Obama would have to spend political capital to pass a moratorium or repeal this year. If he waits until next year, the chances of such a bill passing decrease. Independent analysts anticipate that Republicans will pick up several to a handful of Senate seats and at least 10, if not dozens, of House seats.

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran, is the sponsor of repeal legislation in the House. His bill has 187 co-sponsors and Murphy has been able to extract firm commitment from at least another 12 members, according to a source. The bill needs 218 votes to be assured passage.

Murphy, a member of the Armed Services Committee, could seek a vote on his amendment at the committee level. But it is more likely that he will seek a floor vote, because the chances of passage are better.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who is being targeted by Republicans this cycle, opposes changes to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Murphy would have to convince Pelosi and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who heads the Rules Committee, to allow a floor vote. Slaughter is a co-sponsor of Murphy’s repeal bill.

Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a veteran defense authorizer, does not support the repeal of the law. He recently told The Hill that an amendment to the defense authorization bill could embolden him and other conservative Democrats to band together with Republicans to “bring down” the bill.

He also called on the Democratic leadership to consider the election of Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to the Senate as a wakeup call to the party, which Taylor believes has been sliding too far to the left.

Another possibility is that the Senate passes a moratorium or a change in the law but the House does not. Whether the language would make it into the final defense bill would be decided in conference negotiations.