Lieberman, Levin take lead on measure to repeal 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy

Legislation was launched on Wednesday to repeal the 17-year-old policy that prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. military.

A group of six Democratic senators — headed by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with Democrats — introduced a three-part bill that would immediately repeal the policy, prohibit discrimination against armed service members based on their sexual orientation, and establish Reserve Officer Training Corps units at colleges and universities where they had been barred. 

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Lieberman joined Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Roland Burris (D-Ill.) in announcing the policy in the Armed Services Committee Hearing Room in the Russell Senate Office Building. The crowded press conference was punctuated by several former members of the military who told tales of harassment before their discharges, as well as five other gay men and women who stood off to the side wearing T-shirts that said, ‘Fired Under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ 

Lieberman and Levin are taking the lead on the legislation, following President Barack Obama’s vow during his State of the Union address in January to repeal the policy. Lieberman and Levin also both emphasized the “ground-breaking” testimony last month of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates before the Armed Services Committee, during which both men backed repeal of the policy. Gates said the military is currently conducting a review of the policy, which should be complete by year’s end.

“Today we introduce legislation to stop the prohibition of men and women based on their sexual orientation in the American Armed Forces, and offer in its place a policy of equal opportunity to serve and defend our country,” Lieberman said. “I opposed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in 1993, when it was adopted, and I oppose it today. It is inconsistent with our most important national values and diminishes our military readiness.” 

Lieberman cited statistics that said 13,500 men and women have been discharged from the U.S. military since 1993 under the policy, 10 percent of whom spoke foreign languages such as Arabic. Another 4,000 service members voluntarily leave each year, he said. Gillibrand also said the policy treats women disproportionately — women make up only 17 percent of the military, yet account for one-third of all dismissals, she said. 

The bill’s legislative path will be rocky; neither Lieberman nor Levin said they were assured of having 60 votes to push it through the Senate. They were also hopeful but skeptical of Republican support — most congressional Republicans say the policy has worked, and in an interview with The Hill last week, 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said many top military officers are still wary of a repeal. 

Moreover, some conservative Democrats such as Jim Webb of Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska are likely to be skeptical of a repeal, meaning Democratic leaders may not be able to count on them among their 59-member caucus. 

Levin said he and Lieberman will first seek an outright repeal of the policy as a stand-alone bill. If 60 votes are unattainable, Levin said he would seek to insert an amendment in the 2011 Defense Department authorization measure that accomplishes the task. Levin also said he is “very much inclined to attempt to get a moratorium in,” to prevent any further discharges under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy while the military’s review is ongoing. 

Attaching an amendment to the Defense authorization to repeal the policy would force Republicans to amass 60 votes to strip the amendment from the authorization — a virtual impossibility — instead of forcing Democrats to collect 60 votes for a stand-alone bill. 

“People who are opposed to it would then have to take it out of the bill, coming to the floor, and that’s a very different issue,” Levin said. 

Like in Gates’ testimony last month, Levin said he believed public opinion on homosexuality has changed in the past 17 years. He cited a recent ABC News poll that showed only 44 percent of respondents supported allowing gays in the military in 1993, but 75 percent support it today. 

However, Levin and Lieberman both said the testimony of Gates and Mullen made the most difference in paving the way for the repeal. 

“Mullen made a big, big difference, not only with us but with the troops,” Levin said. “He’s the top uniformed officer of the United States. He was powerful, direct, eloquent… I cited a public opinion poll, but that’s not what’s going to make the difference here as much as inside the military, what the leaders of the military want and believe is the right thing to do.”