Senate deals blow to proposed 'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal in 56-43 vote

The Senate on Tuesday dealt a significant blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to repeal the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.

In a 56-43 vote, Senate Democratic leaders fell short of the 60 votes they needed to proceed to the 2011 defense authorization bill, which included language to repeal the Clinton-era “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law. Every Senate Republican present and three Democrats voted to block debate on the bill.

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Republicans objected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) plan to hold votes on several amendments to the bill that reflected Democratic priorities, including an immigration measure seen as boosting Reid’s own reelection campaign. Reid also would have limited amendments offered by the GOP.

Reid argued that both parties have allowed non-defense-related amendments to be considered on past authorization bills. He singled out Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, whom Reid said had offered amendments unrelated to the military.

Reid was one of the three Democrats — the other two were Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor — who voted to block debate. Reid’s vote allows him to bring up the bill at a later time.

Lincoln is up for reelection this year and is trailing badly in polls.

McCain, who led the GOP filibuster, blamed Reid for the standoff. He mentioned the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” language and the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants if those children serve in the military or attend college. Reid had pledged to bring up the DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense bill.


McCain said the move was a “blatant and cynical attempt to galvanize the Hispanic vote” and to “energize the gay and lesbian vote, in the case of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

“Obviously, we need a defense authorization bill. We need one very badly, and I hope that at some point we’ll address it,” McCain said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Gay-rights advocates expressed disappointment with the vote, which they saw as critical to winning repeal. Republicans are expected to make significant gains in, and possibly win control of, the next Congress, and it is unclear whether they will take up a matter that has been a campaign issue for Obama.

It’s possible Congress could revisit the issue in a lame-duck session, but that is also uncertain.

“Today’s Senate vote was a frustrating blow to repeal this horrible law,” said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization dedicated to the repeal of the ban.

He and other gay-rights activists signaled they will increase their pressure on Senate leaders to bring up the legislation in a lame-duck session.

“I do not see where there is any other alternative,” Sarvis told The Hill. “It will be very tough in the lame-duck [session], but proponents of repeal should focus” on that work period in the Senate.

“It is premature to say this vote is over for this year,” Sarvis added.

Conservative groups praised the Republicans’ filibuster.

“This is a victory for the men and women who serve our nation in uniform. At least for now, they will not be used to advance a radical social agenda,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.

After the vote, Reid, who is the GOP’s No. 1 target in the Senate this fall, said efforts to move repeal would continue.

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President Obama pledged during his campaign to scrap the ban, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs expressed confidence that the Senate would vote on repealing the policy at a later date. The Pentagon has offered its support for repeal.

“I don’t think this is the last chance,” Gibbs said. “If you look at today’s vote, I don’t see how you could come to that conclusion.”

The Pentagon is in the midst of conducting a review on the implementation of repeal and is surveying members of the armed forces on the issue.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to receive the review on Dec. 1 — perhaps before the Senate tries again to debate the defense bill.

Under language included in the defense bill, repeal would not be implemented until the Pentagon finishes its review of how it would affect the military.

Obama, Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must first certify it can be achieved consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.

Pressure to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” could also come from the judiciary. In September, a federal judge in California declared that the ban on gays serving openly in the military was unconstitutional.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he did not think “anybody in the country is going to hold it against us [Republicans] for objecting to the way they’re doing business with the defense bill.”

But Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a chief supporter of repeal, called the GOP’s stance “outrageous and sad.” Levin said that he did not yet have a special agreement with Reid to bring up the defense bill during a lame-duck session.

Earlier in the week, Levin warned that failure to secure enough votes on Tuesday’s motion to proceed would be “a real setback” for the 2011 defense authorization bill since any lame-duck session would be unpredictable.

Jordan Fabian contributed to this report. 

This story was originally posted at 3:01 PM and updated at 4:21 p.m. and 8:28 p.m.