The prospects for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year continue to fade as LGBT advocates pressure the White House and Congress in hopes that lawmakers will take action before they adjourn for the year.
One Senate Democratic aide, who spoke to the Washington Blade on condition of anonymity, said repeal — currently pending before the U.S. Senate as part of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill — is “barely hanging on with life support.”
“The only way to resuscitate this effort and get a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ vote is for President Obama and [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates to start pushing directly, something we on the Hill had expected the president and Gates to do long ago,” the aide said.
Frustration over the lack of movement on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prompted activists affiliated with GetEQUAL to take action on Monday and chain themselves to the White House fence in an act of civil disobedience.
The 13 protesters included Lt. Dan Choi, a gay Iraq war veteran who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year, and Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of GetEQUAL.
In a statement, GetEQUAL said three generations of LGBT activists were arrested as a result of the action. Others who were arrested include former Marine Corps Sgt. Justin Elzie, who became the first Marine discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993, as well as Michael Bedwell, a long-time advocate of LGBT rights and open service in the U.S. military.
As the protesters were chained to the White House fence, Choi called on President Obama to act on his promise to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“After all his rhetoric, I think we must conclude that there is truth to the knowledge in homophobia of both sorts: there is a loud homophobia of those with platforms and there is a silent homophobia for those who purport to be our friends and do nothing,” Choi said. “Loud homophobia and silent homophobia have the same result. They must be combated and this is what we intend to do today.”
While the protesters were chained to the White House fence, they chanted the often-used GetEQUAL refrain of “I am … somebody … and I deserve … full equality.” The protesters also added a new refrain, “Barack Obama … Silent Homophobia!”
The protesters superglued their handcuff locks, and, despite repeated warnings from U.S. Park Police, didn’t remove themselves from the White House fence. As police forcibly removed the activists, they dragged their feet as they were hauled into a paddy wagon. It took five police officers to remove Choi from the fence, handcuff him and drag him to the van.
Army Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II, who previously was arrested for chaining himself to the White House, led the chants of the protesters with a bullhorn from Lafayette Park and shouted out to Obama as police dragged the activists away.
“Why are these courageous heroes having to be arrested now?” he shouted. “Mr. President, could you follow the lead of these brave Americans and stop ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?’”
Pietrangelo called on Obama to issue an executive order to stop the discharges under the military’s gay ban.
In a statement, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, responded to the protest and said Obama is committed to legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“As we have said repeatedly, the president remains committed to a legislative repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Inouye said. “The White House continues to work with Congress toward achieving that comprehensive and lasting solution.”
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs expounded on Obama’s commitment to legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as he acknowledged that the president hasn’t yet reached out to senators to lobby them on the issue.
Asked whether Obama had made any phone calls to “swayable senators” such as Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted “no” on moving forward with the defense authorization bill in September, Gibbs replied that he doesn’t believe the president has spoken to the Maine senator on the issue.
But Gibbs said he’d put passage of the defense authorization bill in the “same category” for passage as other items he mentioned that Obama wants to see in lame duck, resolving a tax cut issue and ratification of the START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia.
“The president believes that this can be done in a way, and should be done, as you heard Secretary Gates and others say, in the next few weeks,” Gibbs said.
Amid doubts about whether the White House would push aggressively for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal this year, Senate leaders are reportedly considering dropping the repeal language from the defense authorization bill to move forward.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) reportedly acknowledged to reporters on Tuesday that taking the repeal provision out of the defense bill is on the table.
“I’m trying to get the bill through Congress,” Levin was quoted as saying. “I’m the committee chairman for a 900-page bill. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is two pages of 900 pages. My focus is different from the media focus. I’m just trying to get a bill passed.”
Levin maintained that he wants get both passage of the defense authorization bill and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but added “if I can’t get both done, I want to get one of them done.”
The White House issued a statement last week saying it opposed stripping the defense authorization legislation of its repeal language. Gibbs reiterated that position during the press conference.
“We ought to keep this in the defense authorization bill, we ought to pass this in the defense authorization bill, and we ought to end the policy that the courts are rapidly getting close to ending on a timetable that those in the bureaucracy might not [like],” Gibbs said.
Additionally, activists continued to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who’s responsible for the legislative calendar in the chamber, to bring up the defense authorization bill with the repeal language.
On Monday, the staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered non-answers 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 Choi — 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 a 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 immediately respond to the Blade’s request to identify the staffers.
The source said he couldn’t give a date for when Reid intends to 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 source said. “There are other things that are going on this week.”
The source 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 Reid source replied, “I cannot.”
In a statement to the Blade, Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said there’s “nothing new yet” with regard to scheduling decisions on 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 of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provision before bringing it to the floor.
The Reid source 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.
McGehee 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 would look into the whereabouts of Choi’s ring.
At one point, McGehee called the fellow a “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.