Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal are pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to schedule a vote on the issue in September as some fear further delay would entirely derail efforts to overturn the law this year.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the prospects for passing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal are “reduced significantly” if Reid doesn’t schedule a vote on the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization before lawmakers break for the election.
“The failure of [the defense authorization bill] and ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] to get floor time and a vote in September or first week of October will be Reid’s alone,” Nicholson said. “Bumping it off to lame duck is gambling with our community’s lives and livelihoods – the same risk we demanded Obama not take by putting off the vote until next year.”
Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, also emphasized the importance of having a vote on the defense authorization bill and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in September.
“It’s important that this happen in September because there are folks who don’t want to deal with this in a lame duck or next year,” she said.
On May 27, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to include language that would lead to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the defense authorization bill and reported the language as a whole to the Senate floor.
But Reid hasn’t yet scheduled a vote for the legislation on the Senate floor. Some Capitol Hill insiders have said they’re expecting the bill to come up in September, although doubts are emerging about having a vote before the month is out.
Nicholson said he thinks Reid may not schedule a vote on the defense authorization bill in September because he’s reluctant to force members to vote on controversial measures prior to the election.
The consequence of not having a vote by the end of the first week of October, Nicholson said, is that all the gains made so far over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be “put at great risk.”
“Once the Senate goes into recess for election season, anything could happen,” Nicholson said. “So putting the ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] vote off until after October is simply gambling with this very important issue. I don’t see how we will be able to forgive the president or Sen. Reid if that happens, because between the two of them they have the power to make sure that risk is not taken.”
Stachelberg emphasized the importance of finishing legislative action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the Pentagon working group completes its study on the issue on Dec. 1.
“In other words, the Pentagon’s hands will be tied to implement the recommendations if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t repealed,” she said. “They’ll have to wait to come back and do that next year, and that’s a problem.”
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said the Senate is planning to have a vote in September on defense authorization, but noted Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) opposition to moving the bill to the floor just before lawmakers broke for August recess.
“When we get back in September, we’ll continue to try and work on an agreement to get the bill to the floor as quickly as possible,” Manley said. “Now that the primary is over, hopefully Sen. McCain will relent in his objection and allow us to take the bill to the floor.”
McCain’s office didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on whether he would continue his objection to a vote.
Other high-profile items are on the Senate agenda for September. Manley said legislation to assist small businesses would be a priority, along with bills related to tax break extensions as well as various conference reports.
When asked whether scheduling time for those bills would mean putting off a vote on the defense authorization bill, Manley replied, “I don’t do hypotheticals.”
Other observers say putting off a vote on the defense authorization bill could be the end for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal if Republicans take control of Congress.
Politico’s Morning Defense reported last week that lobbyists are predicting the defense authorization bill would “come to a screeching halt” if the GOP wins a majority in November and a vote on the legislation hasn’t taken place by that time.
“They provide a couple of reasons: The level of partisan bickering is likely to intensify, and waiting and letting Republicans handle those bills next year will allow the Democrats to play the blame game,” Politico reports.
Nicholson also said a Republican takeover this fall could thwart any attempt for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.
“Unfortunately, a takeover of even one house of Congress by a leadership cadre that is hostile to repealing ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] could put the breaks on all of the progress we have made so far, and even begin to reverse a lot of that progress,” he said.
A lack of pressure from the White House is also seen as a concern for those seeking a Senate vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this September.
Nicholson said it’s unclear whether the White House will push to have a vote on the defense authorization bill when the Senate returns from August recess.
“If the president were pressuring Sen. Reid to move the defense bill in September, it would likely get done,” Nicholson said. “But the White House does not always want bills coming up on the same timeline that we do.”
Nicholson said Obama could eliminate the uncertainty over a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by “publicly call[ing] for Sen. Reid to bring up the defense authorization bill in September.”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to an inquiry on whether the president would push for a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in September that the president remains committed to the issue.
“The president has made clear that he wants ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] repealed and he continues to work with Congress to make sure this happens,” Inouye said.