GOP to defend ‘Don’t ask, Don't Tell’

House Republicans are preparing to mount a vigorous defense of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy President Bill Clinton implemented in 1993.

GOP lawmakers in the lower chamber are poised to vote en masse against the defense authorization bill if it includes an amendment to repeal the law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.

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Over the objections of some Republicans, Clinton issued his “Don’t ask, don’t tell” directive nearly 17 years ago. Since then, many Republicans have warmed to it — especially now that liberals want to eradicate it.

A senior Republican aide on Tuesday said Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, has told his members he will vote against the underlying defense measure if Democrats attach Rep. Patrick Murphy’s (D-Pa.) “Don’t ask, don’t tell” amendment.



It is unclear if Murphy’s measure, which has 192 co-sponsors, could pass the House on a standalone vote. Such a roll call could happen later this week.

McKeon called the repeal plan “an affront to military personnel and their families.”

“The secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked Congress to respect the process they developed to study the ramifications of repealing ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” McKeon said in a statement. “Republicans in the House feel we have a duty to honor that request and hear directly from our military personnel — and their families — before making a decision on a sensitive issue that directly affects them.”

A “no” vote from McKeon, one of the GOP’s leading voices on defense issues, would solidify Republican rejection of defense legislation that usually attracts significant Republican support. Key Senate Republicans also appear ready to reject the defense bill over “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, said on Tuesday he welcomed a review of the military’s prohibition on openly gay and lesbian service members. But he indicated he strongly opposes efforts to change the policy now.

“This ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ issue, they’re going to try to jam that through without even trying to figure out what the impact on battle effectiveness would be,” McCain said on Arizona’s KBLU radio.

Democrats countered that their support of the bill illustrates their commitment to the military.

“This defense authorization bill will continue what has been an unbroken record, frankly, of very strong support for our national security by Democrats,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, too often our Republican friends have voted against some of these pieces of legislation, in my belief for political reasons. I do not ascribe to them the fact that they didn’t want to support the military, but in point of fact they voted against legislation which did, in fact, strengthen the military.”

The Murphy amendment, which has won the support of Democratic leaders and the White House, would repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” statute only after the Pentagon finishes its review of repeal implementation and President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certify that repeal can be achieved consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention. Some House Democrats suggested the language is not strong enough.

“Certainly my constituents would like to see it straight-out repealed,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), a leader of the Democrats’ liberal flank. “I still have to look at it.” Schakowsky is a co-sponsor of Murphy’s initial bill on changing the Pentagon edict.

“In general I don’t believe in discrimination, but I want to look very carefully at it, and particularly consider the views of the military and how they’ll be expressed in this compromise,” said Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), one of the Democratic Caucus’s most conservative members. “It may be that we’re getting the cart in front of the horse by voting ahead of their determination.”

Democratic leadership aides, already fighting to hold back a revolt from conservative Democrats over the size of the tax extenders package, acknowledged on Tuesday that they had not yet whipped the caucus on Murphy’s amendment, which is scheduled to be voted on — along with the overall bill — on Thursday.

A Republican aide said that GOP leaders are keeping all of their procedural options open, including a motion to recommit (MRT) the defense bill that consists of the legislation with Murphy’s amendment removed. Such an MTR would present vulnerable Democrats with the dilemma of having to vote either for or against a defense bill that keeps the status quo in place.

Minnick acknowledged the difficultly presented by that prospect.

“Well, we’ll see,” he said when asked if he would stick with his party on procedural votes.

As both sides weighed their options, dozens of on-the-fence Democrats are waiting for additional signals from the military’s top brass and civilian leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who on Tuesday gave only tepid support for the repeal compromise.

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“Secretary Gates continues to believe that ideally, the DoD review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in a statement. “With Congress having indicated that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”

At press time, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) reiterated his support of existing law: “My position on this issue has been clear – I support the current policy, and I will oppose any amendment to repeal ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I hope my colleagues will avoid jumping the gun and wait for DoD to complete its work.”

Under the compromise, President Barack Obama, Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must certify that full repeal can be achieved “consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention,” according to a letter to the White House signed by lawmakers who favor a repeal.

Meanwhile, the Senate was dealing with a procedural chess match of its own.

Repeal proponents are hoping to include the amendment in the committee’s markup of the defense bill, thereby attaching the 60-vote threshold to any attempt to remove the provision, rather than to attempts to include it in the legislation through an amendment on the floor.

But Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) need 15 votes to win a panel vote, and several Democrats and Republicans are not yet on board.

Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Jim Webb (D-Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are among the swing votes on the panel and, as of Tuesday evening, none had come out in favor of repeal.

This story was updated at 12:21 p.m. on Wednesday.