Congress and White House reach deal on 'Don’t ask, don’t tell' policy repeal

Congressional Democrats and the White House on Monday reached a deal on repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law this year.

Under the deal, the ban on gays serving openly in the military would be repealed once a Pentagon working group studying repeal has completed its review.

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President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must also certify that repeal can be achieved “consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention,” according to a letter to the White House signed by the chief backers of repeal in Congress, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), Senate Armed Services panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is also a senior member of Levin’s panel.

The White House gave its official nod to the deal Monday evening in a response from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Murphy, Levin and Lieberman had asked the White House to reveal its position.

“The proposed amendment meets the concerns raised by the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” wrote OMB Director Peter Orszag. “Such an approach recognizes the critical need to allow our military and their families the full opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process. … The administration therefore supports the proposed amendment.”

The deal could win over lawmakers still on the fence about voting to scrap the ban on gays serving openly in the military before the Pentagon has had the chance to complete its yearlong study.

Policy staff from the House, Senate and White House met Monday to discuss the steps ahead. Separately, representatives of gay-rights groups met with White House and Pentagon staff. The House is expected to vote this week on an amendment sponsored by Murphy to the 2011 defense authorization bill.

The compromise language will be included as part of that amendment, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

The House and Senate are working in concert on the legislation to ensure a uniform approach, sources said.

Supporters of repeal placed their stake on a positive answer from the administration that will allow them to corral enough votes in both chambers to pass repeal.

Obama has committed to scrapping the Clinton-era ban; Gates and Mullen both back repeal as well. At the same time, Pentagon leaders and the White House have pressed Congress to hold off on repeal until the Pentagon study is completed.

Their stance has only galvanized gay-rights organizations and congressional supporters to fight for repeal, as they see this year as crucial to take action. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview with The Hill that the ban will be a memory by year’s end. But Pelosi cautioned that she wanted first to ensure that the House had enough votes to pass a repeal amendment.

Murphy’s bill has 192 sponsors — not enough to pass an amendment in the House. But sources say supporters of repeal have received promises of a yes vote from several other lawmakers, and the compromise under discussion could win more votes.

In the Senate, the way the repeal amendment is written could be critical in whether several undecided Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee support repeal.

One strategy in the Senate could be to have the Armed Services panel adopts a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” amendment when it approves the 2011 defense authorization bill. It would be harder to strip the language from legislation on the Senate floor, since it would require 60 votes to overcome a procedural objection.

Adding the amendment to the bill on the Senate floor would be a tougher vote for supporters of repeal, as they would need 60 votes to win on procedural motions.

Levin and Lieberman need 15 votes to win a panel vote, and several Democrats will be under the microscope.

Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Jim Webb (D-Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) are among the swing votes on the panel, as none have come out in favor of repeal.

For example, Webb agrees the policy is in need of evaluation, but supports the military’s yearlong approach to studying the implications of repealing the law.

This story was posted at 4:11 p.m., 6:25 p.m., 8:06 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.

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