Democrats claim votes are there to nix ‘Don’t ask, don't tell’ policy

Lawmakers and gay-rights activists predicted Wednesday that both the Senate and House will have enough votes to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

Legislation to scrap the ban on openly gay service members in the military is expected to clear a major hurdle Thursday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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The chief backers of repeal, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), another senior member of the panel, would need 15 votes, or a simple majority, to include the legislation in the 2011 defense authorization bill.

According to the latest count by gay-rights activists, who are pressuring panel members to vote for repeal, all Democrats on the committee — except Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) — are expected to support scrapping the ban.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on Wednesday boosted the chance of passage at the committee level when he announced he would support a deal struck earlier this week between the White House and Lieberman, Levin and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).

“We are increasingly confident about the Lieberman compromise and that this could very well be a historic week in the United States Congress,” said Marshall Wittmann, Lieberman’s communications director.

The lawmakers and the administration agreed to repeal the policy 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 it can be achieved consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.

The gay-rights activists believe 16 Senate Armed Services Committee members, including Lieberman and Levin, will vote in favor of repeal.

They are  counting Democrats Robert Byrd (W. Va.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Roland Burris (Ill.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.), and Republican Susan Collins (Maine).

Byrd late Wednesday gave his support to the repeal amendment after Levin and Lieberman agreed to allow Congress to have 60 days to review the implementation policy once certified.

Because of national security reasons, markups of the defense authorization legislation are closed to the public. But votes on final passage and amendments are typically made public a day or two after the markup ends.

While Ben Nelson’s support left Democrats optimistic they could pass the delayed repeal, the military leaders of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force dealt a blow to the compromise deal on Wednesday. The service chiefs each wrote separate letters to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), urging Congress not to act until the Pentagon finishes its study.

McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a key opponent of the repeal plan, forwarded the service chiefs’ letters to Levin.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of completing the comprehensive review prior to taking any legislative action,” McCain wrote to Levin.

Meanwhile, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) on Wednesday predicted that a repeal amendment sponsored by Murphy will make it onto the 2011 defense authorization bill this week.

“I would suspect that there is wide bipartisan support for this in both chambers,” Larson said in an interview.

Murphy’s stand-alone bill for repeal has 192 co-sponsors, but the compromise struck with the Obama administration, which will be reflected in his amendment, is expected to attract more supporters.

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Activists doing their own whip counts expect about 220 votes in favor of the amendment — more than enough to pass it. That figure is expected to include at least two Republicans, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Charles Djou, the newly elected congressman from Hawaii.

It’s unclear whether the Republican leaders will instruct their conference to vote against the amendment and against the whole defense authorization bill.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told members that he would vote against the whole defense bill if it includes the repeal measure.

House Democrats are taking seriously the Republican threat to vote against the underlying bill and may have to reach out to some of the most liberal House members to secure their votes on final passage. Some liberals who traditionally vote against every defense bill are firm supporters of repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a GOP target this fall, reiterated his support of existing law earlier this week.

“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,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

In an interview with The Hill last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will be nothing but a “memory” by the end of 2010.