The staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered non-answers on Monday to LGBT activists and veterans pressing for a commitment from the senator to bring “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal to a vote in the lame duck session of Congress.
A group of about 20 activists affiliated with GetEQUAL — including nine LGBT veterans led by Army Lt. Dan Choi, a gay Iraq veteran discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — came to Reid’s Senate office in the Hart Office Building to demand answers on when the Nevada senator would move forward with major defense budget legislation containing repeal of the military’s gay ban.
“We’re here to essentially ask a very important question,” Choi said. “When is Sen. Harry Reid going to put the [fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill] to vote that’s inclusive of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”?
But the staffers offered no definitive answers to the inquiries on the defense bill, which is currently pending before the Senate, and said Reid is planning to meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) later this week to discuss which legislative items would come up before lawmakers’ adjourn for the year.
A deputy chief of staff for Reid, who didn’t offer his name during the meeting, referred activists to a congressional military fellow and member of the U.S. Army in Reid’s office, who took activists’ questions and said he’d obtain responses for them. Reid’s office didn’t respond to Blade’s request to identify the staffers on short notice.
The fellow said he couldn’t give a date for when Reid intends to the schedule the defense authorization bill for a vote.
“If I told you it’s Tuesday and it doesn’t come up until Wednesday — they’ve got three other cloture votes that they’ve got to get through this week,” the fellow said. “There are other things that are going on this week.”
The fellow maintained that passage of the defense authorization bill is “one of the bills that has to be done this year” because the legislation provides funding for the Pentagon and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, activists insisted that Senate passage of the defense authorization bill with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal be done before the end of the year and pressed staffers on whether that would happen before Thanksgiving recess.
Most repeal supporters anticipate that the Senate would need two weeks to debate and vote on the defense authorization bill and that scheduling the vote early in lame duck is important.
Asked whether he could say whether the vote would come up before Thanksgiving, the fellow replied, “I cannot.”
In a statement to the Blade, Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said there’s “nothing new yet” with any scheduling decisions on Monday with regard to the defense authorization bill.
In addition to questions about scheduling, the LGBT advocates also sought assurances that Reid wouldn’t strip the defense authorization bill pending of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provision before bringing it to the floor.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich) has reportedly been in talks with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about moving forward with the defense authorization bill without the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language.
The fellow said he “couldn’t tell you one way or another” whether the option of passing the defense authorization bill without the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language is on the table.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “Because I am a fellow that’s one of the things that — I can look into it.”
Additionally, activists inquired about what Reid had done with Choi’s West Point graduate ring, which the Iraq veteran had given to the senator at the Netroots Nation conference in the summer to remind Reid of his commitment to repeal the 1993 law.
Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of GetEQUAL, asked whether Reid was keeping the ring in a shoebox or in his desk and whether he has “forgotten that he made a promise in July.”
The fellow said he could look into the whereabouts of Choi’s ring.
At one point, McGehee called the fellow a “the token military person” that Reid’s staff brought out to “act like” he knows LGBT issues.
“In my opinion, Sen. Reid has had the time to show the leadership, my parents are constituents of his state, and I feel like he’s failed not only them as constituents, but Lt. Choi, as a promise that he made in July,” McGehee said.
McGehee’s remarks riled the deputy chief of staff, who insisted the fellow wasn’t a token and that he was brought out because staffers thought he was the most appropriate person to answer questions.
In response, McGehee maintained activists weren’t shooting the messenger, but said if Reid wouldn’t give a commitment that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would come up before the Senate by the end of the year, activists would be back.
“It’s in his hands now,” she said.