Democrats claim votes are there to nix ‘Don’t ask, don't tell’ policy

Lawmakers and gay-rights activists predicted Wednesday that both the Senate and House will have enough votes to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

Legislation to scrap the ban on openly gay service members in the military is expected to clear a major hurdle Thursday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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The chief backers of repeal, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden pays tribute to late Sen. Levin: 'Embodied the best of who we are' Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm dead at 85 MORE (D-Mich.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), another senior member of the panel, would need 15 votes, or a simple majority, to include the legislation in the 2011 defense authorization bill.

According to the latest count by gay-rights activists, who are pressuring panel members to vote for repeal, all Democrats on the committee — except Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) — are expected to support scrapping the ban.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on Wednesday boosted the chance of passage at the committee level when he announced he would support a deal struck earlier this week between the White House and Lieberman, Levin and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).

“We are increasingly confident about the Lieberman compromise and that this could very well be a historic week in the United States Congress,” said Marshall Wittmann, Lieberman’s communications director.

The lawmakers and the administration agreed to repeal the policy only after the Pentagon finishes its review of repeal implementation and President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJudge denies Trump spokesman's effort to force Jan. 6 committee to return financial records Gina McCarthy: Why I'm more optimistic than ever on tackling the climate crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certify that it can be achieved consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruitment and retention.

The gay-rights activists believe 16 Senate Armed Services Committee members, including Lieberman and Levin, will vote in favor of repeal.

They are  counting Democrats Robert Byrd (W. Va.), Jack ReedJack ReedDefense bill sets up next fight over military justice  Ukraine president, US lawmakers huddle amid tensions with Russia Photos of the Week: Tornado aftermath, Medal of Honor and soaring superheroes MORE (R.I.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonOvernight Energy & Environment — Earth records its hottest years ever Global temperatures in past seven years hottest ever observed, new data show NASA welcomes chief scientist, senior climate adviser in new dual role MORE (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillBiden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies On The Trail: Trump-inspired challengers target GOP governors MORE (Mo.), Mark UdallMark Emery Udall11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Kennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package MORE (Colo.), Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE (N.C.), Mark BegichMark Peter Begich11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Harry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Alaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch MORE (Alaska), Roland Burris (Ill.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Ted Kaufman (Del.), and Republican Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsManchin, Collins leading talks on overhauling election law, protecting election officials Schumer opted for modest rules reform after pushback from moderates Ossoff and Collins clash over her past support for voting rights legislation MORE (Maine).

Byrd late Wednesday gave his support to the repeal amendment after Levin and Lieberman agreed to allow Congress to have 60 days to review the implementation policy once certified.

Because of national security reasons, markups of the defense authorization legislation are closed to the public. But votes on final passage and amendments are typically made public a day or two after the markup ends.

While Ben Nelson’s support left Democrats optimistic they could pass the delayed repeal, the military leaders of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force dealt a blow to the compromise deal on Wednesday. The service chiefs each wrote separate letters to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRedistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities MORE (R-Ariz.), urging Congress not to act until the Pentagon finishes its study.

McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a key opponent of the repeal plan, forwarded the service chiefs’ letters to Levin.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of completing the comprehensive review prior to taking any legislative action,” McCain wrote to Levin.

Meanwhile, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) on Wednesday predicted that a repeal amendment sponsored by Murphy will make it onto the 2011 defense authorization bill this week.

“I would suspect that there is wide bipartisan support for this in both chambers,” Larson said in an interview.

Murphy’s stand-alone bill for repeal has 192 co-sponsors, but the compromise struck with the Obama administration, which will be reflected in his amendment, is expected to attract more supporters.

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Activists doing their own whip counts expect about 220 votes in favor of the amendment — more than enough to pass it. That figure is expected to include at least two Republicans, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Charles Djou, the newly elected congressman from Hawaii.

It’s unclear whether the Republican leaders will instruct their conference to vote against the amendment and against the whole defense authorization bill.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, told members that he would vote against the whole defense bill if it includes the repeal measure.

House Democrats are taking seriously the Republican threat to vote against the underlying bill and may have to reach out to some of the most liberal House members to secure their votes on final passage. Some liberals who traditionally vote against every defense bill are firm supporters of repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a GOP target this fall, reiterated his support of existing law earlier this week.

“My position on this issue has been clear — I support the current policy, and I will oppose any amendment to repeal ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I hope my colleagues will avoid jumping the gun and wait for DoD to complete its work,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

In an interview with The Hill last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will be nothing but a “memory” by the end of 2010.