May 26, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
'Don't Ask' repeal votes in Senate committee in question

Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal are still working to obtain the necessary support — which possibly could be only one more vote – for passage of an amendment during upcoming Senate committee consideration of major defense budget legislation.

Those seeking an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are hoping the compromise measure unveiled earlier this week would enable more support for repealing the law. The issue is expected to come before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday or Thursday during its markup of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill.

The compromise measure unveiled on Monday by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) would repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, but only after the Defense Department completes its study on the issue at the end of the year and the president and Pentagon leaders certify that the change wouldn’t undermine military readiness. Additionally, the measure has no non-discrimination language and would return authority on discharges to the Pentagon.

A vote is also expected to take place later this week in the House when the defense budget legislation reaches the floor. Supporters of repeal have said they feel they’re in a good position in this chamber, so the remaining question is whether passage can occur in the Senate committee.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he doesn’t know whether he’ll have the votes for repeal even with the compromise measure.

“I haven’t talked to anybody other than Joe Lieberman about this in the last few days, so I haven’t talked to the people who will be the ones that we need to get it over the top,” he said. “I just haven’t talked to them. I will this afternoon as soon as I leave this press conference.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said Tuesday that he thinks the vote in the Senate Armed Services Commitee is “very tight.”

“We’re not there,” he said. “It’s going to turn on one or two votes, so we’ll just have to see. But it’s the time for everybody to be weighing in, including the administration, to be asking senators for the votes.”

But even with the new proposal, Sarvis said he “hasn’t seen” any new votes yet in the Senate committee as a result of the compromise.

“Some senators thought that it would help, and I don’t know that that’s turned out to be the case, but time will tell,” he said. “It may well help far more in the House, but in terms of the Senate Armed Services Commitee so far, we haven’t seen a huge difference.”

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he thinks supporters of repeal are “closer than ever” in finding votes necessary in the Senate committee for an end to the law.

He said opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have been able in recent days to solidify “at least one or two” more votes that they had been leaning toward voting in favor of repeal, but had not previously expressed an explicit commitment.

“There are a lot of implications that go along with a modifier like ‘soft’ or ‘leaning,’” he said. “Another bombshell like the Gates letter could have torpedoed those votes in that category, and now we got them locked. I don’t think there’s anything that could torpedo those votes and change them back to a ‘no.’”

With 15 votes necessary for a successful vote in the Senate committee, Nicholson said he thinks there are 13 or 14 committed votes in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“I really feel like we’re down to one vote and everyone is trying to go after Ben Nelson and Robert Byrd,” he said. “I am very confident that we will secure the last couple of votes to get this. It appears very likely.”

LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, had lobbied six senators through a grassroots campaign to vote in favor of repeal: Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.).

Two of those votes recently became committed. On Tuesday, Dan McLaughlin, a Bill Nelson spokesperson, told the Blade the Florida senator would vote in favor of repeal. On the same day, Brown said he would vote against the amendment as proposed by Lieberman, according to the Boston Globe.

Ben Nelson has told the Blade he opposes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal at this time, although it’s unclear whether his position has changed following the announcement of the compromise measure. He told reporters on Tuesday that he’d issue a statement on Wednesday to clarify his position on the matter.

Webb made comments to reporters on Tuesday suggesting he would vote ‘no’ if repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” came before him in the Senate, although he didn’t explictly say how he’d vote.

“If you look at what the White House said and if you look at what Secretary Gates said — they both said they would go through the process that Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates announced in February,” Webb said. “I don’t see any reason to preempt that process.”

Asked to clarify whether his statement means he’ll be voting “no,” Webb said nothing and walked away.

Bayh’s office didn’t response to the Blade’s request to comment on how he’d vote on the issue. Nicholson said he believes Bayh is leaning “yes” and said he thinks he’ll vote in favor of repeal.

Staying mum on the issue is Byrd. In a statement, Jesse Jacobs, a Byrd spokesperson, said the senator “has not taken a position for or against” the compromise measure.

Nicholson said it’s possible that Byrd — the oldest senator on Capitol Hill who often doesn’t appear to vote unless needed — would abstain from voting on the issue.

“I just can’t imagine that Sen. Byrd will go out of his way to vote the wrong way,” Nicholson said. “It’s very likely he’s not going to be there. In order to vote the wrong way, he would have to give a proxy for a ‘no’ vote, and I just can’t imagine him putting himself down the wrong side of history like that and going out of his way to do that.”

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

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