May 26, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Murphy amendment certified for House consideration

The House Rules Committee late Wednesday found in order an amendment to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing for a vote on the measure when lawmakers take up major defense budget legislation.

Lawmakers on the panel approved the amendment, introduced by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), by voice vote as part of a rule governing debate for the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill.

The Rules Committee is charged with determining what rule governs the debate on legislation that comes to the House floor, including the length of time for discussion and whether certain amendments will be allowed.

The committee’s certification of Murphy’s amendment means the measure will be able to come to the floor when lawmakers take up the defense budget legislation, which is scheduled to happen either Thursday or Friday.

The rule allows for 10 minutes of debate on the Murphy amendment before House lawmakers take an up-or-down vote on the measure.

In testimony before the committee, Murphy urged lawmakers to find his amendment in order so that Congress could move forward with doing away with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Murphy brought particular attention to the case of former Army Sergeant Darren Manzella, a gay soldier who served in Iraq war and was discharged in 2008 after he came out to his comrades and talked about his story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

“I’m here today for Darren and for the 13,500 brave servicemen and women kicked out of the military simply because they are gay,” Murphy said. “The arguments in support of this policy are weak and outdated, and the time to repeal this policy is now.”

Murphy said the U.S. military is “stretched thin” and it makes no sense to “kick out people who want to serve — who are willing to serve and die for their country.”

Following Murphy’s remarks, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker and member of the Rules Committee, choked back on tears as he expressed appreciation to Murphy for championing the issue to end what he called one of the last “bastions of discrimination.”

After he left the witness stand, Murphy embraced Polis briefly before leaving the committee room.

Murphy told the Blade he feels “very good” as the votes approach both the House floor and the Senate Armed Services Committee later this week.

“I think I’m confident of the votes in the House and also in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Murphy said. “And I think it’s good for national security, and for the American taxpayer, not to waste our money.”

Polis told the Blade he was similarly hopeful about the passage of Murphy’s amendment, which he said would allow “the military to end the ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] policy, which is the stated intention of the commander-in-chief.”

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be passing it on the floor of the House [Thursday],” he said.

A Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the defense authorization bill could come up for consideration on Thursday, but may be pushed back for consideration of jobs legislation.

“Consideration of the defense authorization is still expected to start [Thursday], but it is possible that the [“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] amendment from Rep. Murphy could be pushed into Friday,” the aide said.

The aide said the delay will “allow additional time for the whip effort” and supporters of repeal in the House “continue to be very optimistic on the amendment’s chances.”

While certifying Murphy’s amendment, the committee blocked consideration of a substitute amendment by a vote of 3-8 that would have revised the terms of reference for the Pentagon study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and require that it be delivered to Congress well as the military service chiefs. 

The amendment was offered by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking Republican of the House Armed Services Committee.

In testimony before the committee, McKeon said his amendment would have mandated the Pentagon examine what impact repeal would have on the Defense of Marriage Act as well as readiness and unit cohesion.

In a possible preview of what will happen with the Murphy amendment when it reaches the House floor, lawmakers on the panel were split on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Some members of the Rules Committee expressed support for moving legislatively to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at this time while others said they wanted to hold off until the Pentagon completes its review.

McKeon said in testimony he was among those wanting to wait until the Defense Department working group completes its work.

“We don’t know what effect this would have on recruitment, retention and morale,” he said. “Not making Mr. Murphy’s amendment in order would be keeping the faith with the two-and-a-half million men and women in uniform … in saying that their voices do count.”

McKeon said he received letters this week from the service chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps asking Congress to hold off on repeal until the Pentagon study is complete.

Earlier in the day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an opponent of repeal, also made public four letters from the service chiefs asking Congress to refrain from taking action at this time.

In one of the letters to McCain, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said Congress should wait for the study to be complete “as a matter of keeping faith with those currently serving in the armed forces.”

“To do otherwise, in my view, would be presumptive and would reflect an intent to act before all relevant factors are assessed, digested and understood,” Schwartz said.

But in a response to these letters, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili wrote in a letter made public later in the day that Congress should act on the pending legislation.

“While I fully agree that Congress should take no action that usurps the Pentagon’s evaluation process and recommendations, there is nothing in those letters that gives Congress any reason to delay enacting the legislative compromise that was proposed this week,” Shalikashvili said.

Also speaking out during the hearing in opposition to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal at this time was Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.).

Dreier, who supported “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when it was enacted in 1993, said he would be inclined to support repeal of the law but only after the Pentagon has time to complete its study.

“I wonder why it is that we need to have this vote at this moment,” he said. “We are just a few months away from getting a report that I suspect will allow for the opportunity to ensure that people aren’t thrown of the military who want to have a chance to serve their country.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) also didn’t speak favorably about a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” although his opposition wasn’t as strong as other opponents of repeal during the committee discussion.

Skelton recalled the April 30 letter in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would “strongly oppose” legislative action at this time. Skelton also emphasized the importance of the study as a way to inform how to move forward on the issue, saying it’s “not a rubber stamp.”

But Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a strong supporter of repeal, was particularly passionate about Congress moving to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” immediately.

“What we’ve failed to mention is that 14,000 people in this 17-year period of time have been put out of the military,” he said. “Some of them were people that had specialties that are hard to replace.”

Hastings said he knows of at least 16 people who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that specialized in Arabic translation.

Also in support of Congress moving now to address the issue was Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who said a study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t necessary for Congress to know that it should act against discrimination.

“To me, it just comes down to this simple view that I have, which is an important view, and that is prejudice and bigotry are wrong, whether it is in the workplace or in the armed forces,” he said.

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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