Pelosi push on ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ puts panel chairman in a tough spot

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) is in a politically awkward position on the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. 

Democratic leaders, working with gay-rights activists, are looking for ways to scrap the ban on openly gay men and women serving in the military. But Skelton, a GOP target this fall and one of the original architects of the ban, opposes efforts to repeal it. 

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The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has been able so far to fend off efforts to alter the law. But Skelton is facing an uphill battle when the House votes on the defense authorization bill, which may occur next week.

Repealing the ban could become a contentious debate complicating the passage of the bill that Skelton will manage on the House floor.

It could also complicate Skelton’s reelection bid, because Republicans believe they can defeat the 17-term lawmaker in November.

Skelton, 78, usually breezes to reelection. But with an anticipated GOP wave coming in November, Skelton has had to focus more on his campaign. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won Skelton’s district easily in the 2008 presidential contest, beating President Barack Obama 61-38.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Hill on Wednesday that she will work to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell” this year, but has pointed out repeatedly that she will confer with Skelton before moving forward.

The Republicans vying to replace Skelton have indicated that they will try to chip away at the veteran lawmaker’s popularity and consider making the repeal of the ban a part of their effort to oust the Missouri legislator.

When former President Bill Clinton sought in 1993 to fulfill his campaign pledge to lift the ban on gays in the military, Skelton, who chaired the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel at the time, promised to do whatever it took to keep homosexuals out of the armed forces.

Skelton described the issue back then in personal terms. “My family background is deeply rooted in religious traditions,” he said, according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “My constituents believe the president is off track.”

Skelton worked with former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (D), then chairman of the Armed Service Committee, to ultimately craft the legislation that led to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Seventeen years later, Skelton again does not agree with his president, nor with the 192 of his colleagues in the House who have co-sponsored legislation to eradicate “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Skelton’s Senate counterpart, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is a strong backer of repeal and has suggested he will act on it this year.

Pelosi informed gay-rights groups earlier this week that the defense bill is a “natural place” for lawmakers to bring up the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t Tell.”

The Speaker told The Hill that no decision has been made on whether to seek a separate floor amendment on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” or to address it in conference with the Senate on the defense authorization bill.

Regardless, she added, the Pentagon’s policy will be a “memory” by the end of 2010.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the openly gay chairman of the Financial Services Committee and a close Pelosi ally, said that he is working with Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the lead sponsor of repeal legislation, to figure out the best way to strike the ban.

Frank said last week that Pelosi is considering bringing up repeal as an amendment to the defense bill.

Frank cautioned, however, that “the timing is still being worked out” and that it is yet uncertain whether there will be enough votes to pass repeal.

The gay-rights community, an important voting bloc during Obama’s presidential campaign, is getting impatient with the administration’s reluctance to openly back repeal this year and has been pressing congressional supporters to take action.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, backed by the White House, is opposing any efforts to repeal the ban before the Pentagon has the chance to finish its study on the implementation of repeal by the end of 2010.

Both Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly supported repeal, while Obama committed during his State of the Union address to work this year with Congress and the Pentagon to scrap “Don’t ask, don’ tell” but did not give a timeline for repeal.

Skelton recently got cover from Gates, who, in a letter to the Missouri lawmaker, insisted that Congress hold off on repeal for now.

But Skelton’s stance does not mean that he is immune to Republican attacks in a year when he already is taking heat for last year’s votes in favor of the stimulus bill and climate change package.

“He has voted with Nancy Pelosi 95 percent of the time and has allowed this debate to continue. Rural Missourians want a strong voice for their values rather than a puppet for Nancy Pelosi,” said Christian Morgan, the spokesman for Bill Stouffer, one of the GOP candidates.

Another leading Republican candidate, Vicki Hartzler, has already criticized attaching gay-rights issues to the defense bill. In a reference to last year’s debate over adopting hate-crimes legislation on the defense authorization bill, Hartzler writes on her campaign page: “Moves by Nancy Pelosi and Ike Skelton to tie funding for soldiers, sailors and airmen to the extreme agenda items of the gay movement is a sad chapter that must not be repeated.”

Skelton last year objected to attaching hate-crimes legislation to the defense bill, but Levin successfully argued for the provisions to be included in the final measure.

Levin once again can prove a challenge to Skelton as a strong supporter of repealing the ban. Levin, who has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), is considering adding the legislation to the Senate’s version of the defense authorization bill. 

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Samantha Hill, Hartzler’s political director, said repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will be a campaign matter “because whatever position he takes, we will have to have some sort of response to it, because it is an issue that the constituents care about.”

Ken Morley, an adviser to Skelton’s campaign, disputes that assertion. “The people in Ike’s district know where he stands on this issue,” he said. “His position is well-known. I do not see how opponents can change those simple facts.”

Skelton, who voted against healthcare reform, had $1.23 million in cash on hand at the end of March while Hartzler and Stouffer had $296,000 and $270,000, respectively. The Republican primary in Missouri is Aug. 3.