Sen. Ben Nelson, right, talks with U.S. Army General David Petraeus. Nelson this week said he would vote against a legislative effort to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (Photo courtesy of Nelson’s office)
A key U.S. senator has told the Blade that he opposes repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at this time.
In a brief exchange on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Tuesday he would vote against an effort next week to overturn the law. He said he wants to adhere to guidance from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen on holding off on repeal.
Asked whether he would vote in favor of a repeal measure, Nelson replied, “No, I want to follow with the advice and the suggestions of Secretary of Defense Gates to have the study that is underway right now before we make that final decision — because it’s not a question of ‘whether,’ it’s a question of ‘how.’”
A vote on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of major defense budget legislation could take place next week during the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. Markup proceedings are scheduled to begin May 26 and are closed to the public.
It remains unclear whether there are enough votes on the committee to make repeal part of the legislation. Mustering enough votes to repeal the statute could be a challenge for opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” following Nelson’s comments.
Repeal efforts were complicated last month after Gates released a letter to Congress saying he would “strongly oppose” repeal before the Pentagon completes at year’s end its study on the issue. Since then, supporters of repeal — including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — have advocated for a compromise in which Congress would vote now to repeal the law but delay implementation of repeal until 2011.
Asked whether he would be open to such a measure, Nelson appeared to be unaware that such an approach to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been under consideration, but was reluctant to support the idea.
“I don’t know,” Nelson said. “I haven’t seen that legislation. I know there’s probably some support for that, but I think it’s been made pretty clear by Secretary Gates that we shouldn’t take any action until the study is completed, and that’s my position. That’s where I’m going to stay.”
Nelson’s statements came as a disappointment to people who had identified him as an uncommitted vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that could be moved in favor of repeal this year.
He was among six senators that LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, had lobbied through a grassroots campaign to vote in favor of repeal. The other five are Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Jim Webb (D-Va.).
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said Ben Nelson is only one of the six key senators and estimated that only two or three votes from those six are needed to advance repeal.
“If Sen. Nelson is entrenching himself that hard on that side of the vote, then I think he risks putting himself down on the wrong side of history,” Nicholson said. “That’s something he’s going to have to live with for the rest of his career, and that’s going to be part of his legacy.”
Nicholson said Nelson’s apparent unfamiliarity with delayed implementation legislation could mean that high-level discussions with him on moving forward with that plan hadn’t yet occurred.
‘Don’t Ask’ opponents push on
Even with Nelson representing a “no” vote on repeal during the committee vote, supporters of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are moving forward with plans for a vote next week during the committee markup.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of standalone repeal legislation in the Senate, told the Blade that supporters of repeal are “working hard” to find a way forward for passage in the committee.
“Obviously, we were set back somewhat from the letter by Secretary Gates, but we’re talking to every member of the committee,” he said. “We have some, I think, creative ideas about how to deal with … concerns that Secretary Gates expressed.”
Lieberman said he’s uncertain if the votes are there for passage, but noted that “it’s important to get this done this year.”
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a strong proponent of repeal, said he doesn’t think anyone knows whether the votes are there in the committee for repeal, but he’s “feeling guardedly optimistic” about the prospects.
“It’s crucial that we take this opportunity to lift it,” he said. “There’s different ideas about how to best work with the Pentagon on this approach, but I still think you could study and repeal.”
Nicholson said he thinks supporters “have a really good shot” at getting the two or three votes necessary to win repeal during Senate markup next week.
“It’s really going to come down to some of the one-on-one conversations that Levin and Lieberman are having this week with their colleagues on the committee,” he said.
In the wake of the Gates letter, many repeal supporters see pushing forward with delayed implementation legislation as the optimal path for a successful vote on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.
Lieberman said supporters are looking at alternatives, including a bill “to enact repeal, but have it not be this year, to have it not be effective until either sometime next year” or until the Pentagon working group issues a certification of its study.
“I think Secretary Gates was really talking about he doesn’t want us to do this until the rank-and-file military has had a chance to be heard,” Lieberman said. “So we’re trying to find a way to take legislative action this year, but still respect the opinions of the military and maybe delay the implementation until sometime next year.”
Lieberman said a number of different ideas are being discussed among committee members, but delayed implementation legislation “seems to be the one that commands the most support.”
Also noting that delayed implementation could have traction is Udall, who said such a bill is “one of the ideas” being discussed.
“That still remains my preferred course,” he said. “In other words, you would make it very clear the law is repealed, and then you put in place the timeframe by which you implement the changes that are necessary.”
Despite this push and work toward a compromise, the six targeted members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been reluctant to endorse repeal publicly, although none of these six have been as explicit as Ben Nelson in their opposition.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has maintained on several occasions the importance of the Pentagon study as a means to inform Congress on how to approach repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Asked this week whether he’s made a decision on how he’ll vote should an amendment come before him, Webb replied, “I think we need to respect the process that Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen put in place.”
Webb had a similar response when asked whether his position would be any different for delayed implementation legislation.
“I think we should honor the process that they’ve put in place,” Webb said. “I think people should understand that it’s a pretty significant historical event in terms of what Adm. Mullen said during that hearing in February.”
The offices of Bill Nelson and Bayh sent statements to the Blade that were similarly non-committal in how the senators would vote. The statements were virtually identical to those the offices sent to the Blade last month.
Dan McLaughlin, spokesperson for Bill Nelson, said the senator is “inclined” to support repeal, but “wants to see Secretary Gates’ study on how it would impact the military.”
In a statement, Bayh said his “personal belief” is that people serving their country in the armed forces “ought to be able to serve it openly,” but noted that he wants military leaders to be able to speak up on this issue.
“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,” he said. “I will make a final decision after receiving the input of our top commanders.”
Some of the targeted senators were staying mum this week on how they’d vote should an amendment come before them. Byrd’s office declined to comment in response to a Blade inquiry on the issue. Brown’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Obama MIA in repeal effort?
As supporters of repeal work to gather support, one notable absence among those lending a hand is President Barack Obama.
Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was one of Obama’s campaign promises, but a number of senators say the White House hasn’t contacted them to move them one way or the other on the issue.
In public statements on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue, the White House has consistently refrained from saying Obama supports attaching repeal as part of the defense authorization bill.
Asked whether the White House is being helpful in building support, Lieberman suggested the president could be playing a greater role.
“I mean, they’re obviously for this, so we need their help,” he said.
Nicholson said he didn’t know if the White House had been helpful in moving senators in favor of repeal, but noted that he hasn’t “seen any evidence of that, certainly.”
Each of the targeted senators to whom the Blade spoke said they had not heard from the White House or the Pentagon on the issue.
Asked whether the White House or the Pentagon had contacted him to influence his vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Ben Nelson replied, “No, no.”
Jessica Smith, a Webb spokesperson, echoed those remarks in response to a Blade inquiry.
“As for the White House or the Pentagon contacting our office?” she said. “I don’t believe so.”
Similarly, McLaughlin said he doesn’t believe the White House or the Pentagon has contacted Bill Nelson to inform his vote on the issue.
“To my knowledge, neither the White House nor the Pentagon has recently contacted Bill about this issue,” McLaughlin said.
A White House spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment on why Obama hasn’t reached out to the senators.