President Obama is being pressured to include a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of his upcoming defense budget request to Congress, but the response from two key Democrats to such a proposal could hinder any change in the law.
Two lawmakers with considerable sway over defense matters — and whether a repeal will initially be part of the fiscal year 2011 defense budget — are House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
As leaders of the congressional committees that handle defense matters, Skelton and Levin get first crack at determining what’s included in the defense budget after the president sends his base bill to Congress in February. The lawmakers can make changes to the president’s request in their chairman’s marks to the legislation before the rest of Congress takes action.
So if Obama includes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of his defense budget request, it’s possible for either Skelton or Levin to strike the language from the bill if they don’t want it there.
“You could make the argument that the chairman’s mark is the most vulnerable moment for what happens with repeal legislation this year,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Some advocates, including Belkin, are questioning whether Levin and Skelton would retain Obama’s request to lift the ban on open service in the U.S. armed forces as part of their chairman’s marks for the defense budget.
Belkin was particularly skeptical about Levin’s willingness to let repeal go forward because of the senator’s history on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Levin has been a huge problem on this issue,” Belkin said. “Who the hell knows where Levin is personally, but I would say that very few people in the United States have done more to obstruct the service of openly gay troops than Carl Levin.”
Belkin took issue with Levin’s abandoned plan to hold hearings last year on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Those hearings never took place.
“I think it’s been now three times that he’s announced that the Senate would hold hearings on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Belkin said. “He just made the announcement again that they’re going to have hearings. But why were there no hearings last year despite the repeated announcements?”
A Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson didn’t respond to the DC Agenda’s request for comment on whether Levin would allow repeal language to remain in his chairman’s mark for the defense budget.
Last week, Levin announced the Senate Armed Services Committee would hold hearings on gays in the military by the end of this month and that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates would testify.
Matt Canter, spokesperson for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said the hearing is scheduled for next week. Although not a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gillibrand has been a strong advocate for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since she took office last year.
Belkin also criticized Levin for not finding a Republican co-sponsor for a Senate repeal bill, which some say has prevented the introduction of the legislation in that chamber.
C. Dixon Osburn, former head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said Levin has gone on record several times as noting that he supports repeal of the ban, but acknowledged Levin is “somebody who’s very much a consensus builder within the Senate Armed Services Committee.”
“So if it’s not percolating up in the Senate Armed Services Committee, he’s going to be more reluctant even as he believes that the law should repealed, and right now you don’t have the bubbling up within the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Osburn said.
Although there’s concern among “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” opponents about Levin, Skelton has been the more vocal of the two lawmakers in supporting the existing ban on open service in the military. According to The Hill newspaper, Skelton said last week during an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” that he is “personally not for changing the law.”
Still, both Belkin and Osburn said they aren’t as concerned about Skelton’s position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as they are with Levin.
“It’s not helpful to have the chairman of House Armed Services oppose you, but I don’t think he’s the center of gravity in the House any more,” Belkin said. “All that said, it is sad … Chairman Skelton stands for firing gay Arabic linguists during a national security emergency. I’m not quite sure why that makes him feel safer.”
Osburn said the only moderation that he’s seen from Skelton on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is his willingness in the past couple years to have House hearings on the issue.
“And I think that the hope is if there’s a strong majority in the House supporting repeal, that he will accede,” Osburn said. “I’m less sanguine since he’s announced that he supports delay, but I think that Congressman [Patrick] Murphy is such a strong leader on this, and he’s developed such support around this in the House, that it is still a good possibility that this can move forward in the House.”
Lara Battles, spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, said she couldn’t say whether Skelton would include repeal language in his chairman’s mark for the defense budget, which she said would be public in May.
In 2008, the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee held the first hearing on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 15 years. Aaron Hunter, spokesperson for Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chair of the subcommittee, said the panel intends to hold another hearing, although a date hasn’t been set.
If either Levin or Skelton removes repeal language from the defense legislation, lawmakers could reinsert the provision through an amendment.
The Advocate reported last week that gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said it doesn’t matter whether the Pentagon includes repeal in the budget request because lawmakers have the votes in the House to put the language in the legislation.
“I do not think it matters what the Pentagon says,” Frank was quoted as saying. “We will get the votes without it, I think.”
Some activists also were confident the House could muster enough support to pass an amendment that would lead to overturning the law. Still, whether there are 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster was in question.
Osburn said the Senate is a “much more difficult prospect” than the House because there isn’t a strong leader advocating for repeal in that chamber.
“Now that said, there’s a still a possibility,” he said. “There are still enough senators who support repeal that if the House moves on this, one or more senators could get together and ensure the amendment is attached to DOD authorization bill as well.”
If the House version of the bill has repeal language and the Senate version doesn’t, lawmakers would have to hash out whether repeal would be included in the final bill during conference committee — another potential point where the repeal strategy could fail.
Osburn said “it’s a possibility” that repeal language could survive conference, but that would depend on who congressional leaders appoint as conferees.
“The effort that the LGBT community would need to push for is to ensure that the conference committee includes people who are going to be supportive of this and will leave it in,” he said.