Senate Dems claim enough votes to repeal 'Don't ask' policy

Senate Democrats are confident they have at least 60 votes for a Defense Department authorization measure that includes a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization bill with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, if only there is a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said at a Thursday morning press conference. “I repeat, there’s more than 60 senators, I’m convinced, who are prepared to vote for this bill including ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
 

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Lieberman acknowledged that Republicans are insisting on a deliberate, protracted debate on the Clinton-era policy, which is tucked into a massive measure that authorizes policy, spending and benefits for the military.

Republicans are expected to insist on the right to offer a long list of amendments and force votes on them. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has threatened a filibuster the policy, which bans openly gay people from serving in the military.

McCain offered no change of position to The Hill on Thursday during an interview. 

He maintained that he has problems with the Defense Department study, which he said wasn't a survey, but rather a study about how to implement a policy reversal. And, he said only 28 percent of military personnel responded.

"All I want is a study that assess the impact on battle effectiveness and morale of a repeal," McCain said. "The so-called 'survey' was on how to implement a repeal."

McCain also noted that Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos is opposed to a repeal and three other military leaders have also clamored for a more effective survey.

Lieberman and McCain are close friends. Asked if he has had discussions with McCain, or any success in changing his mind, Lieberman said Thursday: “I’ve had discussions. I’ve had no success.”
 
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be under pressure to be generous with the amendment process in order to avoid the fate that befell the repeal in September. At that time a handful of Republicans, such as Susan Collins of Maine, who had announced their support for ending the policy, helped kill the measure out of anger that Reid wasn’t allowing enough GOP amendments.

Lieberman said he may push Reid to concede to GOP demands just to get the bill to the floor. However, some Democrats said the GOP was acting disingenuously.
 
“This is not about how many amendments we’re going to do, or how long we’re going to debate. This is about those who oppose this policy wanting to kill it and taking every opportunity they can, and using the Senate rules to do that,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “That’s exactly what’s going on here.”
 
The provision to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell" is included in the 2011 defense authorization bill the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote this summer. The bill is viewed as must-pass legislation because it authorizes funding and sets policy for the Pentagon.
 
A successful procedural vote to take up the authorization measure will hinge on conservative Democrats such as Sens. Jim Webb (Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), as well as a handful of Republicans such as Collins and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), whom Lieberman said plans to support it. Lugar’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
 
Nelson issued a statement Wednesday that said he supports the authorization and the DADT repeal, but only if the Senate takes up job-growth legislation first.
 
Pryor said he is uncertain and wants to review the Defense Department survey results.

Collins supported repealing the DADT policy in the Armed Services Committee this past spring, and a spokesman reaffirmed her support again on Thursday, “if Sen. Reid allows for a full, fair and open debate, and allows Republicans to offer amendments to the bill.”

Timing could also be problematic.

Many senators have been waiting for the results of a year-long Defense Department survey of the armed forces about lifting the policy. The results are due on Dec. 1, but portions were leaked to the Washington Post last week, and appear to show strong support for repealing the policy from military personnel. Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) plans to hold hearings on the report in early December.

Lieberman said Democratic leaders plan to be in session until around Friday, Dec. 17, which should allow three full weeks for the authorization. He said weekend sessions in December were also possible.
 
Asked if he believes there are at least 60 votes, Levin said, “I hope so.”
 
“Three things have to happen: We’ve got to get the report, we’ve got to have a hearing on the report and a couple of days to digest it, and we’ve got to have fair amendment opportunities,” Levin said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen both support ending the policy, and Lieberman said he expected Gates will actively lobby wavering senators after the report is issued in December.
 
“I’ll appeal to him to do everything he can to help,” Lieberman told The Hill. “My guess is that after the report comes out, assuming it’s forward-leaning and positive, that he’ll get more involved. But there’s more than 60 ready to do this, if we give it time.”
 
Reid announced Wednesday night he will bring the legislation forward the after senators return from next week’s Thanksgiving recess. Reid’s announcement followed meetings earlier Wednesday between his office, White House officials and several gay-rights activists.
 
The House has already passed the authorization, including the repeal, and Lieberman noted that the House and Senate versions are identical, thereby eliminating the need for House-Senate conference talks to resolve differences.
 
-- This story was updated at 6:23 p.m.

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