As crucial votes loom on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the House and Senate, supporters of repeal are stepping up pressure on lawmakers to act this year.
During the week of May 24, the Senate Armed Services Committee is set to consider major defense budget legislation. Opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are expecting Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) to introduce a measure to overturn the law as part of the consideration of the defense authorization bill.
At around the same time, the House version of the defense authorization bill is expected to come to the floor. Those favoring repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are anticipating that Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) will offer an amendment that would end the law.
Whether sufficient votes exist in the Senate committee or on the House floor for repeal is unclear. On April 30, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a letter advising Congress to hold off on any repeal vote. Most observers said the letter would have a chilling effect on repeal efforts.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he’s “not very” confident that there will be enough votes for passage because he doesn’t believe those seeking to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are sufficiently lobbying lawmakers.
“If I felt that the community was lobbying the way it should be, I’d feel better, but everybody wants to be the armchair quarterback and not do the more boring work of calling up their representative,” Frank said. “I’m optimistic in general, but the key question is will people make the calls or not?”
To step up the pressure on Congress, a group of about 350 citizen lobbyists swarmed Capitol Hill on Tuesday to encourage lawmakers to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of a veterans lobby day sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers United.
The event, which was the most highly attended lobby day in HRC’s history and the largest lobby event on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” followed a White House visit Monday in which LGBT veterans urged administration officials to move on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the lobby day events were “enormously successful” in part because of the sheer numbers.
Nicholson estimated that about 90 percent of those who participated in the event were veterans, a fact he said had an impact on lawmakers sensitive to the concerns of those who have served in the military.
“They were people who actually had credibility talking on the issue and people who could actually engage military legislative assistants eye-to-eye and issue-to-issue,” he said.
As a result of the lobby day and other efforts, Nicholson said he saw potential for Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to move toward supporting repeal after previously being on the fence.
Still, the outcome of the votes in the House and Senate remained unclear. Most repeal supporters said they were more likely to find success in the House than the Senate.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he agreed with an assessment given to him by Murphy in the House that sufficient support exists for passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the floor.
Still, Sarvis said “we’re a couple votes short” of repeal succeeding in the Senate Armed Services Committee, although he noted that it’s still possible to win more support in the time remaining before the committee markup.
Sarvis said a key to winning more support would be finding “a legislative compromise” that addresses the concerns Gates raised about holding off on repeal until the Pentagon completes its study on the issue.
LGBT lobbyists have been pushing for delayed implementation legislation — a bill that Congress would pass now and would take effect in 2011.
On Monday, Levin said he wanted to pursue repeal as part of the defense authorization process — if the votes are present — and that he favors the idea of passing legislation that wouldn’t take effect until later, according to Roll Call.
“What we ought to do is repeal it, but make the effective date after the report,” Levin was quoted as saying.
Additionally, Sarvis said President Obama needs to follow through on his campaign promise to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and convince senators to move forward on the issue.
“The person that we need to hear from the most in these closing days is the president of the United States,” Sarvis said. “The president is in the best position to reconcile the concerns that Secretary Gates expressed with the desire of Chairman Levin and others in the next two weeks.”
Nicholson similarly said he believes repeal would pass in the House and that in the Senate Armed Services Committee a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be close. He also supported forcing a vote among Senate Armed Services Committee members even if the votes are lacking for repeal.
“I think we’re starting to consider the idea that if you called the bluff of those who say they’re leaning ‘no,’ that they may change their mind,” Nicholson said. “We’re talking about one or two votes. Calling their bluff and doing the vote anyway and proceeding to the outcome is potentially a legitimate tactic, now, too.”
It’s possible that the House version of the defense authorization bill would contain repeal language that the Senate bill lacks, meaning a conference committee would resolve the issue. Whatever the conference committee decides would be the final legislation that makes its way to Obama’s desk.
Asked about whether repeal could succeed this year if only the House votes in favor of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Frank said supporters “ought to focus on trying to lobby members.”
“It bothers me that you and your readers and others are worrying about what they can’t affect in lieu of doing things that they can affect by calling members and lobbying,” he said.
Sarvis said “there’s no way of knowing” whether repeal is still possible through the conference committee if the House acts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Senate is unable to pass repeal.
“If the House votes for full repeal and the Senate doesn’t, yes, the issue is alive and will be within the scope of the conference, but it will be far, far more difficult to keep in there,” Sarvis said.
Sarvis said “it’s urgent” that both the House and Senate act to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of the defense authorization bills because that would provide repeal supporters the best conditions heading into conference committee.
Nicholson said “it’s not as likely” for repeal to succeed if one chamber of Congress votes in favor of it and another chamber doesn’t, but said such a situation would nonetheless provide a path to overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“People may be disappointed and pessimistic if it comes down to the conference committee and fighting it out there,” he said. “But Congressman Murphy and Sen. Levin are 100 percent committed to seeing action on repeal this year, and are going to fight for it even if it comes down to conference committee.”