Leaders set to include ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal in defense authorization bill

Democratic leaders plan to repeal the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in next year’s defense authorization bill.

Both the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) back the strategy of using the defense bill to change policy on gays in the military, an aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told The Hill on Wednesday. Frank, the openly gay chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is a close ally of Pelosi.

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The defense bill has long been seen as a possible vehicle for changing the policy. “One legislative way or another, this policy, which is unfair to patriotic Americans who want to serve our country and strengthen our national security, must be changed,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi.

No final decision has been made, but it makes sense to deal with a military policy issue in the defense authorization bill, a House Democratic aide said.

The move could set up a vote on a divisive social issue next year as lawmakers head toward the 2010 midterm elections.

The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy became law in 1993 and was seen by many as a stumbling start to President Bill Clinton’s first year in office.

Obama promised repeal during his presidential campaign, and has since worked with Pentagon officials and leaders in Congress.

After coming under fire from gay-rights groups for not doing more to end the policy, Obama in October reiterated his pledge to repeal the law.

But he did not offer a timetable or strategy for when and how he would act.

“I will end ‘Don't ask, don’t tell,’” Obama said at the annual dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights advocacy group.

“We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country,” Obama said. “We should be celebrating their willingness to step forward and show such courage ... especially when we are fighting two wars.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supports repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and in September wrote to Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking for direction on how best to approach the issue.

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“As Congress considers future legislative action, we believe it would be helpful to hear your views on the policy,” Reid wrote. “Your leadership in this matter is greatly appreciated and needed at this time.”

Reid also mentioned two soldiers discharged from the military after they revealed they were gay. One of the soldiers served in Iraq, while the other flew missions against Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

It is unclear how Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would handle including repeal legislation in the Defense authorization bill.

“We just finished this year’s National Defense Authorization Act and we haven’t started talking about what is going to be in next year’s bill,” said Jennifer Kohl, the House Armed Services Committee’s spokeswoman.

Skelton, who played a major role in crafting the original policy, indicated earlier this summer that he would hold hearings on repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” So far, no firm schedule has been set for those hearings.

Skelton announced the hearings while managing the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill debate on the House floor in response to questions from Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the principal sponsor of a House bill repealing the policy.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had planned to hold a hearing on the policy sometime this month, but so far no date has been set.

Frank told the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate that the repeal would be included in next year’s Defense authorization bill.

“Military issues are always done as part of the overall authorization bill,” Frank said in the story published on Wednesday. “'Don’t ask, don’t tell' was always going to be part of the military authorization.”

The goal for finishing next year’s defense bill would be the end of September, meaning the policy could be changed by next fall.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) had eyed the 2010 defense authorization bill as the vehicle for a measure imposing a temporary moratorium on gays serving openly in the military. She withdrew the amendment when it became clear she lacked the votes to break a filibuster.

Gillibrand has also mentioned attaching a repeal to an extension of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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Reid earlier this year suggested using an executive order to change the policy, but the White House has shied away, and said it prefers a “durable legislative solution.”

An executive order could only suspend implementation of the ban, rather than repeal it outright.

At press time, the House bill to repeal the ban had 183 co-sponsors. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the organization at the forefront of the repeal, is running a grassroots campaign to win 218 co-sponsors for the legislation — a number that would likely ensure  safe passage of the bill in the House.


Roxana Tiron contributed to this report.