April 22, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Obama AWOL on ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal?

Army Lt. Dan Choi and five other LGBT veterans handcuffed themselves to the White House fence Tuesday in protest of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ echoing a similar protest staged one month earlier. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

As activists and lobbyists continue to press for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” some are losing patience with President Obama and moderate Democrats in Congress.

Obama was heckled at a fundraiser on Monday and a group of six former LGBT service members chained themselves to the White House fence this week to protest what they view as slow progress in overturning the law.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign and other advocates are working to push six key senators to support repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.

Moderate senators from six states — Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Virginia and West Virginia — are the targets of HRC’s grassroots campaign. The renewed push to win their support comes as the Senate Armed Services Committee is poised to tackle the issue May 26 when it takes up the Defense authorization bill.

Allison Herwitt, HRC’s legislative director, said the grassroots effort is being coordinated by about two dozen field workers and includes postcards, phone calls, district office visits, op-ed placements and other media coverage.

“We’re also, where we can, working with some grasstops folks to weigh in with senators, and it’s an ongoing process,” she said.

Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, said the campaign builds on the organization’s earlier efforts such as the Voices of Honor tour and involves “identifying and mobilizing veterans” to contact senators and participate in the joint Lobby Day between HRC and Servicemembers United on May 11.

Servicemembers United Executive Director Alex Nicholson said his organization is identifying veterans with HRC’s membership and bringing in new veterans not connected to any organization to advocate for repeal.

“We’re basically setting up a number of events in each of these states with vets to talk about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to get the issue to the local media,” he said.

But even with this campaign underway, senators from these six states aren’t yet committed to voting for repeal. Many are saying they want to hear the results of the Pentagon study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is due Dec. 1, before taking action. The mandate of the study, as established by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, is to examine how the U.S. armed services would implement open service should Congress repeal the ban.

One such senator waiting for the study results is Jim Webb (D-Va.). Asked by DC Agenda on Tuesday whether he favors repeal, Webb emphasized his support for the review currently underway.

“I think what Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen proposed in terms of the study is very important,” Webb said. “We need to understand that. I support the approach that they’re taking. It’s responsible.”

Pressed on how he would vote on an amendment during the defense authorization markup, Webb reiterated his support for the working group and replied, “I think we need to honor the process that Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen have put in motion.”

Holding a similar position is Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). In a statement, Nelson spokesperson Grant Schnell said the senator is interested in the results of the study.

“Sen. Nelson’s inclined to support repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, but wants to see the study Secretary Gates announced of how this would impact the military,” Schnell said.

Also refraining from endorsing repeal was Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). In a statement, Bayh said he’s “committed to ensuring that our troops are treated with the respect they have earned through their selfless service” and that his personal belief is “those who are willing to take a bullet for their country ought to be able to serve it openly.”

“However, President Obama is absolutely right to solicit the input and support of his top military commanders about the effects of repealing the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” Bayh said. “I will make a final decision after receiving the input of our top commanders.”

The offices of Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) didn’t respond to DC Agenda’s request for comment.

Asked about the progress in moving these senators to support repeal, Herwitt said the campaign is “a work in progress” and that many lawmakers typically hold out on announcing support for pro-LGBT legislation until just before it comes to a vote.

“You always have that last handful of House members or senators that you’re really looking to secure support from, and they’re typically the ones that don’t declare early,” she said.

Rouse noted that there’s a “significant presence” of mobilized efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the six states where HRC is working to influence senators.

“If you talk [with] any leaders or politically engaged people in these six states, I think they would acknowledge that there has been significant movement across the states in support of ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Rouse said.

Nicholson also said “it’s really too early” to tell whether the effort will be successful in moving moderate senators to vote for repeal.

“With these swing vote senators, they’re not going to make up their minds until the last minute, and [then only if they] absolutely have to,” he said. “If they’re not forced to take the vote, I don’t think they’re going to take the risk of coming out one way or the other.”

Still, Nicholson said he’s seen evidence of these senators noticing the campaign’s efforts in their states, citing Nebraska as an example where increased media coverage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has come to the attention of Ben Nelson’s staff.

Nicholson said he’s heard members of Ben Nelson’s staff have taken the initiative in conversations with other staff members on Capitol Hill to mention an uptick in newspaper stories coming from Omaha, Neb., and Lincoln, Neb., on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“What we do know right now, what we are able to see, is that it’s being noticed — that’s for sure,” Nicholson said.

‘Within a vote or two’

But with votes from these key senators still in play, it remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee to advance repeal.

During a press event Tuesday, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a strong proponent of repeal in the Senate, was optimistic about having enough support, noting that “we’re very close” and “we’re within a vote or two.”

“There are certainly a number of senators on [the Democratic] side that are on record as wanting to overturn ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and there are some who have not made their intentions clear,” Udall said.

Among Republicans, Udall said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who often supports LGBT civil rights bills, has “expressed an interest in overturning ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

Nicholson estimated that a vote now in the Senate Armed Services Committee to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have a 25 to 50 percent chance of succeeding without further intervention from the administration.

“I think that Bayh and Bill Nelson are ‘lean yeses,’” Nicholson said. “They’re undecideds, but they’re undecideds leaning towards ‘yes.’”

One factor that would be seen as a tremendous boon — and perhaps even essential — to moving key senators to support repeal is an explicit endorsement from President Obama to attach an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the upcoming Defense authorization bill.

But the White House and the Pentagon have not come forward with an explicit endorsement of repeal this year. In response to a query from DC Agenda during a press briefing last month, Gates said he doesn’t recommend a change in the law until the Defense Department completes its study implementing open service and that he thinks the president is comfortable with this process.

On Monday, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, wrote a letter to Obama urging him to come out for repeal. Sarvis said he’s concerned about “multiple reports” that the president’s congressional liaison team “is urging some members of Congress to avoid a vote on repeal this year.”

Among those noticing a lack of support from the Obama administration to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at this time is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Asked by DC Agenda on Tuesday what the White House and the Pentagon are saying they want from lawmakers on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Levin replied, “Let them complete the analysis.”

During his press event, Udall called for a stronger voice from Obama. While acknowledging the president made clear in January during his State of the Union address that he wants to work to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Udall said he wants to see and hear more from Obama on the issue.

“The White House has, in the State of the Union address, made it clear they want to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Udall said. “The timing they continue to leave up to the Congress. That’s why I think it will be very useful if the president weighed in and said that this year is the year to finish the job.”

Anger with Obama for failing to endorse immediate repeal led protesters to interrupt the president’s speech Monday at a Los Angeles fundraising event for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

In another protest, six LGBT veterans handcuffed themselves to the gates of the White House on Tuesday in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and were subsequently arrested. Among the demonstrators were Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, who were arrested last month after handcuffing themselves to the White House fence in a similar protest.

In a statement, Choi said he and other LGBT veterans participated in the action out of concern that the president is wavering on his commitment to push for ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We are handcuffing ourselves to the White House gates once again to demand that President Obama show leadership on repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Choi said. “If the president were serious about keeping his promise to repeal this year, he would put the repeal language in his Defense authorization budget.”

Following the protest in Los Angeles, White House Deputy Press Secretary Dan Burton wouldn’t say in response to a reporter’s question aboard Air Force One whether Obama supports repeal at this time. Instead, Burton emphasized that “a tremendous amount of progress” has been made on the issue.

“This is a policy that’s been in place for quite a long time, and as we’ve seen on other issues, change is hard,” he said. “But that said, what we’ve seen is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense both come out in support of this change, and we’re moving with as much speed as possible to see that it’s done.”

Nicholson said he doesn’t think it’s possible to move senators to vote for an immediate repeal bill without more support from the president. But he noted a bill with delayed implementation, as Servicemembers United previously recommended, is possible.

“I think that’s the best chance we have for getting this because it’s the only thing consistent with what the Pentagon wants and it’s the only … middle ground between what the Pentagon says they want and what we are willing to give up and accept,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said the repeal legislation currently before the Senate isn’t a delayed implementation bill because it calls for an immediate cessation of discharges while allowing the Pentagon working group to complete its study.

Regardless of the positions of the White House and Pentagon, Herwitt said HRC and other advocates are working to make repeal happen this year in the hopes of moving moderate senators to vote for repeal.

“I think that we are going to continue to push and advocate for these senators’ votes,” she said. “The president said in the State of the Union address that he will work with Congress this year and we are continuing to push forward.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

3 Comments
  • Jim Messina is the Deputy Chief of Staff for President Obama. He is gay and is charged with being the liaison to the GLBT community. He’s turned out to be just another political hack, more interested in preserving his own job than working on matters that count. He has shut SLDN out of all discussions on repealing DADT because they are too vocal. It seems that President Obama would be better served with someone that actually supports the gay community than Messina who seems to be doing nothing to advance our issues.

  • Charles Etheridge / Atlanta, GA

    I think that further delay would not accomplish anything favorable. I’ve been waiting for this ever since the early seventies when I served, uneventfully, in the air Force for three years. In the dorm that I lived in were personnel from the highest scoring occupations in administration, medicine, dentistry, as well as weather and flight manipulations, a very great many of us were gay and knew that the others were. At that time we kept a relatively low profile, but it was well known throughout the base that we were gay. It should be back to that way now.

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