Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reaffirmed on Monday his commitment to bring “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal to vote in the lame duck session of Congress amid fears other legislative priorities will bump the issue from the agenda.
Reid pledged to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by year’s end on the Senate floor as he described a litany of legislative items he wants the chamber to take on during lame duck, including passage of the DREAM Act, renewing tax cuts for middle class families and ratification of the START Treaty.
“We’re also going to repeal the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law,” Reid said. “We’re going to match our policy with our principles and finally say in the United States, everyone who steps up to serve our country can be welcome.”
Legislation to repeal the military gay’s ban is pending before the Senate as part of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. A previous attempt to bring the legislation to the Senate floor in September failed when a united Republican caucus blocked consideration of the measure.
Many senators — including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) — said they wanted a more fair amendment process with more amendments for the minority as a condition to moving forward with the legislation.
In his remarks, Reid said Republicans are blocking consideration of the defense authorization bill because they don’t believe they have the votes to take out the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provision by amendment once the legislation reaches the floor.
Reid said when Republicans refuse to debate the defense authorization bill, they also ”hold up a well-deserved raise for our troops, better health care for our troops and their families” as well as other important initiatives for the U.S. military.
A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also affirmed President Obama wants Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before lawmakers adjourn for the year.
“The White House remains fully committed to passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, including the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ during the lame duck,” the official said. “This is a priority for the president, and are we confident that the Congress will be able to address this issue this year.”
Concern that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal may have fallen from the schedule emerged when Reid offered remarks earlier in the day and didn’t include the defense authorization bill as among the legislative items for which he would file cloture on Monday.
Instead he listed other items, including the DREAM Act and legislation that would provide healthcare benefits and compensation to workers who responded to Ground Zero during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Reid only mentioned the defense authorization bill after Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) reminded him on the floor to say something about the legislation.
The majority leader responded by saying he had bipartisan conversations on Sunday about trying to find a way to move forward with the defense authorization bill.
“The issue on that, Madam President, is what we do with amendments,” Reid said. “And without belaboring the point here, I would be happy to consider doing a number of amendments if we had time agreements on those amendments. But to just have an open process – at this stage, I don’t see how we can do that.”
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said Reid didn’t include ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” among the items on which he would file cloture on Monday because the Senate leadership is still in talks to find enough Republican support to move forward with the defense authorization bill.
“Discussion are ongoing that involve Sen. Levin, Sen. [Joseph] Lieberman, Sen. Collins and others about trying to put together a debate that will satisfy folks and both of the aisle,” Manley said.
Manley said he couldn’t make a prediction on when these discussion would conclude, but said Reid remains committed to bringing up the legislation to a vote during lame duck.
Despite the commitment from Reid for a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” concerns that time will run out before lawmakers act persist.
In a brief exchange with the Washington Blade on Capitol Hill, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) expressed concerns about being able to move forward with the defense authorization in the limited time that remains in the session.
“The longer this go on the more difficult it becomes, but I’m obviously … still hopeful,” Levin said.
Christopher Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, acknowleged that time is an issue as he said he still sees a path forward for repeal.
“The calendar, in my estimation, has always been a bit more difficult than the vote count, but I do think that there are scenarios where this can be finalized for a signature before Congress adjourns,” Neff said.
Neff cited what he perceived as Obama’s commitment to repeal as a reason for why repeal can still happen and noted a recent call the president made to Levin against stripping the defense authorization bill of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” language.
“President Obama has shown strong leadership in reaching out to Sen. Levin and to Sen. Reid to try to move this process forward,” Neff said. “I think the White House has taken a leadership role on this and they want to see it delivered and I think there’s more to be done.”
Talk is emerging about extending the legislative session beyond what was previously planned to accomodate a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
During his earlier remarks, Reid set Dec. 17 as the target date for when he wants the Senate to adjourn for this Congress and said he doesn’t think his colleagues want to stay until Christmas Eve as they did last year.
But Manley said the Dec. 17 target date for adjournment is “not hard and fast” and “we’ll have to wait and see how long we’re going to need.” He added the entire Democratic caucus would agree to extending the session for that to happen.
In a statement, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said the Senate should stay in session for until the remainder of the calendar year if that’s what’s necessary to complete legislative work before the chamber, such as passage of the defense authorization bill.
“It’s time to follow Elvis Presley’s advice – we need ‘a little less conversation, and a little more action,’” Udall said. “I’m willing to stay through Christmas and New Year’s, if that’s what it takes, to fight for middle-class tax relief, the defense authorization bill, public lands legislation – which means jobs for Coloradans – and other important work.”
On Monday, the Huffington Post reported that Lieberman and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) were in favor of extneding the legislative session to pass “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“Sen. Lieberman believes that there are at least 60 votes to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ this year, provided that leadership allows time for sufficient debate and amendments,” Lieberman spokeswoman Erika Masonhall was quoted as saying. “Wanting to go home is not an acceptable excuse for failing to pass a bill that provides essential support for our troops and veterans and failing to take action that the president, the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have called for.”