Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has announced plans to proceed with major defense budget legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language as questions linger about whether sufficient votes are present to move forward.
Reid officially announced plans to proceed with the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Tuesday during his press conference in the U.S. Capitol.
The majority leader said the defense authorization bill is “especially important” this year because the legislation will be a vehicle to address issues that he called “long overdue,” including “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I think we should choose common sense over discrimination,” Reid said. “We’re going to match our policy with our principles and finally say that in our country, everyone who steps up to serve our country should be welcome.”
Still, Reid acknowledged opposition in moving forward with the legislation and said he thinks he would have to file cloture to proceed with the bill.
“I would hope we can move to it without having to file cloture on a motion to proceed, but the way things have been going, having had to file cloture on filibuster to more than 100 different pieces of legislation, I probably will have to file cloture on that,” Reid said.
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, told the Blade the senator intends to file cloture on the defense authorization bill this week for a vote on Tuesday.
Reid would file cloture after a senator objects to moving forward with the defense authorization bill with unanimous consent. After 30 hours of discussion, votes will be cast to determine whether 60 senators approve of ending the filibuster and officially moving to debate and amendments.
Asked at the conference whether he has 60 votes to proceed with the legislation, Reid replied, “We’ll sure find out.”
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he’s “reasonably confident” that “60 firm votes” are in the Senate to end a filibuster.
“I think we’ll actually probably end up with a couple more if needed,” Sarvis said. “I don’t think there are 40 senators who want to go on record as [being] opposed to calling up the defense authorization bill.”
Still, key Republicans in the Senate have expressed concern about the defense authorization bill and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language as well as other provisions in the legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the repeal language a “controversial item” in response to an Blade inquiry on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his press conference.
“The provision in the bill involves eliminating ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ without the study, and that has also made it pretty controversial,” McConnell said.
The language in the defense authorization bill provides for repeal only after the Pentagon working group developing a plan for implemention an end to law finishes its work on Dec. 1.
An objction to proceeding would most likely come from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been the most vocal opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the Senate. He has previoiusly objected to unanimous consent on bringing the defense authorization bill to the Senate floor.
Brooke Buchanan, a McCain spokesperson, said in a statement the senator “strongly believes” that Pentagon review should be complete before taking legislative action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“As all four service chiefs have stated, we should not short circuit the ongoing Pentagon review and thereby deny our men and women in uniform a chance to have their voices heard on an important issue that affects them and their service,” she said.
Buchanan was referring to a letter from the four service chiefs made public this spring expressing their discontent with moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal before the Pentagon review is complete.
But Sarvis called the notion that Congress must wait for the Pentagon working group to finish its work a “tired talking point from the ‘no’ crowd.”
“Ironically, Congress, in all likelihood, will have that report before the vote is taken on the conference report in the lame duck session,” Sarvis said.
Reid said opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal can have a vote when the legislation comes to the Senate floor on whether to strip out the language from the bill.
“They want a vote on it; they can have a vote on it,” Reid said.
Sarvis said repeal proponents have been anticipating this amendment to come to the Senate floor and are prepared to beat back such a measure.
“I think if Sen. McCain or another senator moves to strike the repeal provisions, we will prevail by a comfortable margin,” Sarvis said.
But finishing the bill before the lawmakers before lawmaker break before Election Day is seen as a major concern by repeal proponents.
Sarvis identified “time” as his biggest concern heading into Senate debate on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” while emphasizing the importance of a Senate vote on the defense authorization bill in September before lawmakers adjourn for the break.
“As long as there are strong opponents in the Senate, they will try to tie this up and ensure that we don’t finish in September or early October,” Sarvis said. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
Sarvis said the lame duck session after Election Day is limited and bills that haven’t already made it through both chambers of Congress are less likely to meet approval.
DREAM Act comes into play
Also during the conference, Reid said he wants to amend the defense authorization bill so that it would include the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, an immigration-related bill.
The legislation would provide a path to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants pursuing a college education or position in the U.S. armed forces.
“Kids who grew up as Americans should be able to get their green card if they go to college or serve in the military,” Reid said.
The majority leader noted a number of U.S. service members are Hispanic and said “it’s really important that we move forward on this legislation that we tried to work on.”
Reid said moving forward on the DREAM Act as part of the defense authorization bill is partially in response what he called his inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this Congress.
“I know we can’t do comprehensive immigration reform,” Reid said. “I’ve tried so very, very hard. I’ve tried different iterations of this, but those Republicans we had in the last Congress have left us.”
McConnell cited the inclusion of the DREAM Act as a potentially “extraneous” amendment to the defense authorization bill.
The minority leader also was critical of Reid said he wants to address the issue of “secret holds” on presidential nominees as part of the defense authorization bill.
“It’s made it needlessly controversial,” McConnell said. “I can’t tell you right now how easy it will be to go forward with that bill, but it’s certainly created an element of controversy that would not have been otherwise there.”
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for Immigration Equality, an LGBT immigration group, said his organzation was not part of discussion of including the DREAM Act as part of the defense authorization bill, but supports its passage.
“I can’t predict what the impact is going to be, but we certainly support the DREAM Act and I would say that we believe that the Senate majority leader is the right person to make the decision on how best to move forward,” Ralls said.
Sarvis said he doesn’t know whether this measure would complicate efforts for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“I don’t think it has to,” Sarvis said. “I think they are two separate issues and, at the end of the day, I think each one of these amendments are going to have to stand or fall on their own.”