Gay veterans are celebrating congressional action last week to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” 17 years after Congress passed a law banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military.
The House and Senate took separate actions that would lead to an end of the statute. Both chambers approved amendments repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of major defense budget legislation known as the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill.
On May 27, the House voted 234-194 on the floor in favor of an amendment sponsored by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.). The next day, the chamber voted 229-186 in favor of passing the entire defense bill.
Five Republicans voted in the affirmative on the amendment: Reps. Judy Biggert (Ill.), Joseph Cao (La.), Charles Djou (Hawaii), Ron Paul (Texas) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.). Joining other Republicans to vote against the measure were 26 Democrats.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16-12 in favor of an identical repeal measure sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).
In that chamber, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the only Republican to vote in favor of repeal. The sole Democrat who voted against the amendment was Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). He had earlier told media outlets that he sees no need to preempt the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” study by voting in favor of repeal at this time.
The legislative compromise adopted by both chambers of Congress would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” only after the Defense Department completes its study on the issue, due Dec. 1.
Additionally, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen would have to certify that repeal won’t undermine military readiness — and 60 days would have to pass after this certification before repeal would take effect.
The measure also notably lacks the non-discrimination language for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members that standalone repeal bills contained.
Even with the compromise, though, many gay former service members were delighted with Congress for taking action.
Mike Almy, a gay former Air Force communications officer who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006 and recently testified before the Senate on the issue, witnessed the vote in the House chamber.
“The whole floor and the gallery erupted with a cheer,” he said. “There were quite a few tears of joy and disbelief, including myself. I still get choked up when I think about it.”
Following the vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee, Almy said repeal supporters visited the office of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to thank him for his vote in favor of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Nelson told the Blade last month that he wouldn’t vote in favor of a measure repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But after Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) unveiled his compromise legislation, Nelson signaled he would vote in favor of the measure.
Almy said Nelson’s staffers told repeal supporters that they received 40,000 phone calls in Nebraska for repeal and 1,100 against.
“I was speechless,” Almy said. “I was completely dumbfounded there was that much support in Nebraska for repeal. It was just an incredible week overall.”
Retired Navy Capt. Joan Darrah, a lesbian who retired from service in 2002 because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” also said she was pleased with Congress, calling the votes “a tremendous effort and a great result.”
But Darrah, who lives in Alexandria, Va., said she’s “distressed” about Webb’s vote against repeal.
“I’ve met and corresponded with Sen. Webb many times and I’m disappointed,” she said.
Darrah said she’s willing to live with the compromise, though, and didn’t think Mullen would delay certification of repeal once the Pentagon study is complete.
“This approach that they’ve come up with allows the study to conclude — and the study is supposed to be how to implement it, not if we should,” she said. “I think that this is an excellent compromise. We need the Senate to vote on it and then get on with getting rid of this, frankly, un-American and discriminatory law.”
Also expressing excitement about the congressional votes was a gay man from Chesapeake, Va. The active duty Navy sailor, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke to the Blade on the condition of anonymity to avoid to being outed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
He called the action from Congress “long overdue” and said “it’s been a rough hell” serving in the military for seven of the 17 years since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was enacted.
He said he’s willing to accept the compromise advanced by Congress because “we’re standing on the right side of history” and didn’t think Obama, Gates or Mullen would delay certification of repeal.
“Adm. Mullen said it best — men and women are serving in an institution where integrity is key, but we’re asking them — asking us — to hide who we are,” said the man. “I don’t think we’ll have any problem at all.”
Following the vote, Obama issued a statement on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” action. The White House previously said it would support the compromise legislation because it allows the Pentagon to complete its study on the issue.
Obama said he was “pleased” with the outcome while stressing the importance of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” study due at year’s end.
“I have long advocated that we repeal ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ and I am pleased that both the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee took important bipartisan steps toward repeal tonight,” Obama said.
The president said the Pentagon’s review was “key to successful repeal” and that he was grateful the amendments approved by Congress “will ensure that the Department of Defense can complete that comprehensive review that will allow our military and their families the opportunity to inform and shape the implementation process.”
Hurdles remain in repeal process
Even with Congress taking action to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the legislation approved by the House and the Senate committee still has to make its way to the president’s desk and win his signature before it’s enacted.
And a number of obstacles could prevent the bill from reaching the White House or being signed into law. However, supporters of repeal are saying these roadblocks are less numerous than obstacles before the congressional votes on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the legislation didn’t “have a lot” of possible roadblocks preventing it from being signed by the president.
Still, one problem that supporters of repeal could face is a filibuster of the defense authorization bill when it reaches the Senate floor.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and chief opponent of repeal in the Senate, had pledged to find the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to block the bill from moving forward.
Roll Call newspaper reported May 27 that McCain said he’ll “without a doubt” support a filibuster if the bill goes to the floor with repeal language.
“I’ll do everything in my power,” McCain was quoted as saying. “I’m going to do everything I can to support the men and women of the military and to fight what is clearly a political agenda.”
But mustering 60 votes to filibuster the defense bill could prove a challenge for McCain.
Two senators who voted against the inclusion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language in the defense bill — Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) — later voted in favor of reporting out of committee the defense bill as a whole. Their votes could be seen as signs they wouldn’t support filibustering the legislation on the floor.
Nicholson said he believes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has the votes to shut down McCain’s filibuster threat on the bill, but added it’s “never a guaranteed thing.”
“I personally think Jim Webb and Scott Brown’s votes are still a little volatile,” Nicholson said. “While they voted to report the bill out of committee, I don’t know that they’re solid allies on this. If McCain figures out a way to try to block this with a filibuster, I wouldn’t count Brown and Webb in our camp 100 percent.”
During a press conference last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), hailed as a champion of repeal in the Senate, dismissed the chances of a successful filibuster on the defense authorization bill.
“I think it’s hard to filibuster a defense bill,” Levin said. “There’s so much in here for our troops. The fact that there’s one provision in here that some people don’t like — it seems to me [that] would not be [a] sufficient deal for 41 senators to filibuster a defense bill.”
Levin said he wants to bring the legislation before the full Senate sometime before the August recess.
Nicholson said another threat on the Senate floor could be a strike-and-replace amendment modifying the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” language, such as one that changes the scope of the Pentagon study on the issue.
Conservatives have called for legislation that reconfigures the study so that it would focus on whether repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have a significant impact on improving military readiness.
“Something like that could be very appealing, especially if it’s rather moderate in nature,” Nicholson said.
Making the language different in both bills would mean the differences would have to be hashed out by conference committee, which could jeopardize any repeal provision being in the final bill.
An unrelated issue that could preclude Obama from signing the defense bill is funding for an alternate engine program for a next generation military aircraft known as the Joint Strike Fighter.
The House version of the legislation authorizes $485 million in funds for the second engine for the aircraft. Last week, an amendment failed in the House that would have stripped the funding from the legislation. The Senate committee’s version of the legislation authorizes no funding for the program.
In a statement, Obama spoke out against the funds for the alternate engine program in a Statement of Administration Policy on the defense bill as a whole. He subsequently warned Congress he would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk with such funding.
“As the Statement of Administration Policy made clear, our military does not want or need these programs being pushed by the Congress, and should Congress ignore this fact, I will veto any such legislation so that it can be returned to me without those provisions,” Obama said.
The issue of funding for the alternate engine program has perennially been a point of contention between Congress and the White House. According to Reuters, 2010 marks the fourth consecutive year in which the Pentagon has voiced concern about the program.
Nicholson said he didn’t know if the veto threat was “too serious of a problem,” but noted it’s something supporters of repeal should monitor.
He said repeal supporters could either push Congress to take out funding for the alternate engine program or lobby Obama not to veto the bill over the funding.
“In the end, I don’t think that’s going to be a big problem,” Nicholson said. “Even if he did veto it and it went back, I feel certain with the majorities by which we won the House and the way it’s aligned in the Senate, I don’t really fear that the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ language will be threatened or in play.”
Levin, a supporter of funding for the alternate engine program, also said during the press conference last week that Congress and the administration would find a way to work through the disagreement on the issue.
“There’s all kinds of items in this bill,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to believe the president would veto an entire bill over just one provision.”