By J. Taylor Rushing and Roxana Tiron - 03/03/10 07:20 PM EST
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Wednesday launched the first Senate effort in nearly 20 years to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Lieberman has the backing of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and hopes to win repeal of the 1993 law known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell” by the end of the year.
It puts the Senate on the same page as the House, where lawmakers for several years have sought to repeal the Clinton-era law.
The legislative path will be rocky.
Early indications suggest the Pentagon may push back on congressional efforts to scrap the law until a Defense Department panel finishes its review of how to implement a repeal.
Lieberman on Wednesday conceded that the 2011 defense authorization bill could be the ideal vehicle to carry his bill. Neither Lieberman nor Levin said he was assured of having 60 votes to push it through the Senate as a standalone bill, but both said they would try to do so first.
If 60 votes are unattainable, Levin said he would seek to insert an amendment in the 2011 Defense Department authorization measure. At the very least, Levin said that he would insert a moratorium of the current law in the massive defense policy bill to prevent any further military discharges because of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Support for the bill within the Senate Armed Services Committee is not a given, either. Democrats such as Jim Webb of Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska are likely to be skeptical of a repeal at least until the Pentagon’s review is completed. Republican support on the committee for an outright repeal has not yet materialized.
In an interview with The Hill last week, 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said many top military officers are still wary of a repeal. McCain, who is up for reelection in November, could represent a prominent roadblock.
If Lieberman’s bill makes it into the committee’s version of the 2011 defense authorization bill, opponents would have to amass 60 votes to strip the amendment from the authorization — a virtual impossibility — instead of forcing Democrats to collect 60 votes for a standalone 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.
Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the chief sponsor of repeal legislation, signaled he wants to attach his bill to the House’s 2011 defense authorization bill. Murphy has 189 co-sponsors so far.
The path in the House could also be rocky.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who played a crucial role in crafting “Don’t ask, don’t tell” 17 years ago, has said publicly that he opposes scrapping the law.
During a House Armed Services Personnel subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Murphy said he saw “no reason” why Congress should not proceed with repeal while the Pentagon undergoes the implementation review.
If Congress approves repeal as part of defense authorization, it would be closer to the end of the year and legislation could push back the date of implementation to give the Pentagon more time.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to see the military’s review completed by Dec. 1.
Lieberman stressed that his bill would be phased in, with full enactment not occurring for six months, to allow time for the study and for regulations to be adopted.
The Pentagon’s chief counsel, Jeh Johnson, who is leading the review, on Wednesday pushed back on Murphy’s idea. He argued that the review could not only inform the Pentagon’s implementation of repeal, but also how Congress could “fashion a legislative approach.”
Lieberman’s bill would not only repeal the policy immediately, but prohibit discrimination against service members based on their sexual orientation. It would establish Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) units at colleges and universities where they had been barred.
He said the discrimination language is necessary to codify into law so that a future president could not overturn a repeal simply by executive order. The language regarding ROTC units is necessary, in turn, because they had been barred from schools that have non-discrimination policies.
Lieberman cited statistics that said 13,500 men and women have been discharged from the U.S. military since 1993 under the policy. Ten percent of those 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. Other speakers on Wednesday estimated there are some 66,000 gay Americans already serving in the military.
Levin and Lieberman both said the Feb. 2 testimony of Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in support of repeal made the most difference in paving the way for scrapping the law.
“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 … What’s going to make the difference here [is] inside the military, what the leaders of the military want and believe is the right thing to do.”