Gillibrand mulls move left on gays in military

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is using the controversial issue of gays in the military to solidify her support among the left and, in doing so, could put President Obama in a tough position with one of Democrats’ biggest support groups.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is emerging as a leader, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), on the issue of repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

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The junior senator from New York, who has been criticized for being too conservative on social issues, is gauging support among her colleagues for a repeal of the Clinton-era law. Gillibrand is considering her options, including a possible amendment to the 2010 defense authorization bill currently under debate.

That amendment could be a first step leading to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” by placing an 18-month moratorium on the discharge of gays serving in the military, according to spokeswoman Bethany Lesser.

As of Monday, Gillibrand had not yet introduced an amendment, and it is unclear if and when she would do so. The debate over the 2010 defense authorization bill will take the entire week in the Senate and any senator can insist the amendment receive 60 votes before being included in the bill.

President Obama has pledged to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law, which bans openly gay people from serving in the military.

But if Gillibrand and other supporters are successful at including an amendment in the defense authorization bill, it could put Obama in a tough position.

Obama has personally vowed to veto any defense bill that includes additional funding for the F-22 fighter jet. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the F-22 funding as early as Tuesday. If it remains in the bill and Gillibrand’s amendment is added to the bill, that could result in Obama vetoing legislation that contains at least one avenue leading to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The repeal of the policy is a leading priority for the gay-rights community, which is already discontented over Obama’s taking slow steps toward several issues of importance to it. The community was one of his biggest support groups during the 2008 presidential campaign.

It’s not the first time Gillibrand has moved to the left since she joined the Senate, but it is perhaps the most drastic movement yet. And it comes as liberal darling Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) is on the verge of announcing her primary challenge against the appointed Gillibrand.

She has worked on tightening up gun control with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) — who, like Maloney, was looking at a primary challenge — has gone left on illegal immigration, and now is working to shore up the gay community and its supporters, who represent a significant voting bloc in New York.

According to CNN exit polling from the 2008 presidential primary in New York, 7 percent of Democratic primary voters were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Patrick Egan, a professor at New York University, said that number could be even higher in a lower-turnout race like a Senate primary, since the gay community turns out at a higher rate than others.

“They can actually be a pretty key constituency in a statewide primary in a state like New York,” Egan said.

Egan noted that Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), who is preparing a primary run against Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), has also been playing up his opposition to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sestak authored an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday detailing his thoughts on the issue.

Egan said opponents of gays in the military have historically been more vocal, but Ken Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY), suggested that could be changing thanks to the publicity created by Proposition 8 in California.

“My sense is that among the Democratic primary electorate, what happened as a result of Prop 8 was that people began to take the issue much more seriously, and the intensity of the issue has gone up,” Sherrill said.

New York Democratic consultant Joseph Mercurio said Gillibrand continues to cover all her bases, with the latest being suburban and other women who support gay rights.

“It’s not just gay and lesbian and transgender people that are involved; it’s also a lot of people on the left,” Mercurio said. “It’s a much bigger audience that cares about all the civil rights issues that gays are involved in.”

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibits officials from inquiring into a military member’s sexual orientation but allows the services to take action against those members who disclose their homosexuality by word or action.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), supports a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” but has been noncommittal on a repeal being initiated by Congress. Accordingly, he has shifted the burden onto the White House.

“It requires presidential leadership. This cannot be addressed successfully without that kind of leadership,” Levin told reporters at a press conference in late June. “It’s going to take some real kind of preparation inside of the services for us to successfully deal with that question.”

However, Obama and Pentagon leaders have not yet taken any steps to repeal the law, despite strong pressure from gay-rights advocates.

Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the Pentagon is looking into “more humane” ways to comply with the law. Gates said that the Pentagon’s general counsel is exploring ways of making the law more flexible until it is changed.

Gates indicated that Pentagon lawyers are researching whether military officials can ignore the policy in cases where members of the military are “outed” against their will.

The White House had said previously it would not stop prosecutions of military members whose sexual orientation is made public against their wishes.

Since Obama took office in January, 296 service members have been discharged under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was signed into law in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton as a compromise to allow gay and lesbian service members to serve in the military, as long as they did not disclose their sexual orientation.

“We would encourage the Senate to start taking some action,” said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to the repeal of the law. “One interim step could be an amendment to stop investigations for the next 18 months.”

Among their recommendations was the 18-month moratorium on investigations under the controversial law. But SLDN stressed that the moratorium should not prevent the Pentagon from investigating service members for other violations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

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