A key senator who opposes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is doubtful that sufficient support exists to repeal the law this year as he continues to push for a legislative moratorium on discharges.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters following a hearing Thursday he’d favor legislation to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year, but said there “will be great difficulty in succeeding in repeal.”
“I’m in favor of repeal, but I don’t favor going to a vote if it’s going to be a setback for those of us who think the program should be repealed,” he said. “I can take a whip check, but I think there’s a real problem … getting repeal approved.”
Fearing a lack of votes, Levin said he’s pushing for a legislative moratorium. The senator noted that such a measure would be “logical” because it doesn’t predetermine the outcome of the Pentagon study currently underway.
“Once the commander-in-chief says people shouldn’t be discharged for simply being gay, I think there’s real dilemma,” he said. “And when we think about that dilemma … hopefully, we’ll lead people to see that the moratorium is an attractive position because it doesn’t prejudge the outcome.”
Levin said he wants a legal opinion of the validity of a moratorium as well as what will happen with pending discharges as the Pentagon completes its review.
Asked whether the White House has been pushing for a moratorium as a way to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year, Levin replied, “Not to me. They may have in some other place.”
But groups opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are reluctant to embrace a moratorium and say there’s still an opportunity this year for repealing the law outright. In an organizational statement sent by spokesperson Trevor Thomas, the Human Rights Campaign emphasized the possibility of repeal this year.
“We believe the votes to repeal this failed law can be found and everyone who wants to see ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ end needs to strenuously lobby their elected leaders,” says the statement.
Kevin Nix, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was similarly bullish in a statement on passing full repeal this year.
“It’s too early to be talking about … half measures like a moratorium,” he said. “We’re focused squarely on getting full, permanent repeal of [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] in the defense authorization bill.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he would support any measure that “had a realistic chance” of alleviating the burden on gay service members, but noted that he was unconvinced a moratorium would be a politically easier vote than outright repeal.
“We’ve heard from some offices on the Hill that they don’t see a practical difference between the two,” he said. “So if there’s going to be a vote on anything this year, we would like it to be on full repeal.”
Nicholson said he would much prefer a push for a vote on full repeal “with modifications” rather than “settle for an equally tough vote on a temporary moratorium.”
During the hearing Thursday, lawmakers pressed Navy and Marine Corps leaders on their views on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
When Levin asked witnesses whether they support repeal of the 1993 law at this time, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said he favors repeal but also supports the study advanced earlier this month by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“Since ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a law, whatever happens resides in Congress,” he said. “I support the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and I think the president has come up with a very practical and workable way to do that.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway reiterated their support for the Pentagon’s review as they had done in congressional testimony Wednesday.
But Conway said he wouldn’t want any change to undermine military readiness, and noted that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is working. He advised against any change at this time.
“At this point, I think the current policy works,” he said. “My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, to the president, would be to keep the law such as it is.”
In a statement, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis rebuked Conway for his remarks, saying the commandant was having his position both ways by supporting a study geared toward ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and opposing repeal at this time.
“General Conway was the only chief to say to Congress this week that the law is ‘working,’” Sarvis said. “It is not working. Having a law on the books that fires talented troops, at a time of two wars when all manpower is needed, is not effective and does not enhance the performance and readiness of the force.”
During the hearing, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who’s slated next week to introduce Senate repeal legislation, said he agreed with Conway that overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be “held up to the standard of the military readiness.”
“I’m supportive of the end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” he said. “I believe it’s the fair and right thing to do, but in the end … this has to pass the test of military readiness.”
Lieberman said he believes repeal will pass this test based on what’s happened in other countries that have lifted their bans on open service.
“I hope that we will conclude repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will enhance military readiness, but that’s yet to be determined as the study goes on,” he said.
The issue of what the United States can learn from foreign militaries in implementing repeal also emerged during the hearing. Roughead said the working group was necessary to examine the impact on repeal on the U.S. Navy. He said other studies on the effect of repeal on other navies that have lifted bans on open service don’t address the consequences of repeal in the United States.
“While I have high regard for those other forces, they are not us, they do not come from our culture, they do not come from the beliefs that young men and bring into the service,” he said.
Nathaniel Frank, author of “Unfriendly Fire” and research fellow at the Palm Center, has emphasized in arguments in favor of repeal how other countries have lifted bans on open service. Responding to Roughead, Frank said the United States can learn from these countries on this open service as it has on other issues.
“There’s no question that each culture is different, each military is different,” he said. “But the U.S. military has repeatedly looked to other militaries to study issues, including this issue, as well as housing and health and personnel management.”