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 LevinCarl LevinDemocrats and Republicans share blame in rewriting the role of the Senate For the sake of American taxpayers, companies must pay their fair share What the Iran-Contra investigation can teach us about Russia probe MORE (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 ObamaBarack ObamaEPA chief jabs California’s environment push Trump praised Philippines' Duterte for 'unbelievable job' on drugs: reports Overnight Finance: Inside Trump's first budget | 66 programs on the chopping block | Hearing highlights border tax divide | Labor to implement investment adviser rule MORE, 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 ReedJack ReedIntel chief quiet on whether Trump asked him to deny Russia evidence Dem senators push for probe of Sessions over Comey firing Overnight Finance: Trump floats tying tax reform, infrastructure | Trump trade rep confirmed | Dems raise concerns over banking regulator | House to kick off tax reform hearings MORE (R.I.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Bill NelsonBill NelsonExpanded laptop ban alarms travel industry Why does air travel seem so miserable? Offshore drilling opponents gear up for Gulf fight MORE (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillMueller to ask Congress to step back Russia investigations: report Overnight Cybersecurity: US heard Russian intel talk about targeting Clinton | Senators briefed on Russia probe | Trump leaning toward Lieberman for FBI GOP senators praise Lieberman for FBI director MORE (Mo.), Mark UdallMark UdallPicking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Gorsuch's critics, running out of arguments, falsely scream 'sexist' Election autopsy: Latinos favored Clinton more than exit polls showed MORE (Colo.), Kay HaganKay HaganLinking repatriation to job creation Former Sen. Kay Hagan in ICU after being rushed to hospital GOP senator floats retiring over gridlock MORE (N.C.), Mark BegichMark BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (Alaska), Roland Burris (Ill.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.), and Republican Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGOP senators bristle at Trump's Medicaid cuts GOP senators knock Trump's budget proposal Russia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement MORE (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 McCainJohn McCainRepublicans give Trump's budget the cold shoulder Overnight Defense: Trump budget gets thumbs down from hawks | UK raises threat level after Manchester attack | Paul to force vote on 0B Saudi arms deal Five takeaways from a busy day of Russia hearings MORE (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.