Capitol Hill observers are optimistic that sufficient support now exists to pass standalone “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation amid questions about when the Senate will take on the legislation.
A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity, said the chances of passing the new standalone repeal legislation are “looking better and better each day.”
“Based on what I’m hearing, I think there is a very keen interest by Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House to make a standalone bill a big priority,” the aide said. “I think that they are taking steps to ensure that chances are good for passage.”
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, also said she believes there’s a chance the bill will pass before Congress is out of session.
“Having a chance is all that you need,” she said. “And you need the pieces to fall into place and the commitment of those on the Hill and the White House to get it done. People really need to lean into this to get it done.”
But a Senate Republican aide, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, was more cautious and said passage depends “on so many variables.”
“I think if the omnibus, the continuing resolution, all that stuff stretches past Thursday night, Friday, then it gets real difficult,” the aide said. “Those things are already set in motion. It could happen, but there’s just a lot of minefields.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced the new repeal legislation last week after the Senate on Thursday failed to meet the 60-vote threshold necessary to move major defense budget legislation to the floor containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Lieberman’s legislation is identical to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provision in the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. Even if the standalone is signed into law, repeal wouldn’t take effect until the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the U.S. military is ready to implement open service.
Support for the legislation in the Senate has grown rapidly as Lieberman — and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an original co-sponsor for the bill — have worked to gather co-sponsors for the legislation. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the measure as of Monday had 40 co-sponsors.
Joe Solmonese, president of HRC, said the growing number of co-sponsors for the legislation “adds momentum” to the effort to legislatively repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.
“Now the question is whether the Senate and House will take up this measure quickly and get it to the president’s desk,” Solmonese said. “There should be no excuses for inaction.”
When the bill comes to the floor, eyes will be on senators who say they support repeal, but didn’t vote in favor of bringing the defense legislation to the floor last week, such as Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska).
Last week, many Republicans said they were voting “no” because they didn’t believe the amendment process was fair enough for Republicans. The defense authorization bill typically takes several days of debate and both parties offer amendments to the legislation.
This year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had proposed 10 Republican amendments and 5 Democratic amendments as part of the agreement to proceed to the legislation.
But the Republican aide noted that passing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as standalone legislation as opposed as passing it as part of the defense authorization bill eliminates arguments to vote “no” on procedural grounds.
“You take away everything that people had problems with — procedure, tax cuts and everything else,” the aide said. “It’s a ‘Hail Mary’ pass, but could it work? Yes.”
Stachelberg also said the standalone bill would have a better chance because Republicans wouldn’t be able to say they were being offered an unfair deal for amendments on the larger defense bill.
“We can argue they got that or not with the deal that was offered, but they didn’t feel like they got that,” Stachelberg said. “The process arguments with respect to repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ fall away when you strip out the context of the defense authorization bill.”
As attention remains focused on whether sufficient support exists in the Senate to pass the bill, action is underway in the House to act first to make repeal efforts less complicated in the upper chamber.
On Tuesday, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House. Drew Hammill, spokesperson for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said a vote on the bill will take place on Wednesday.
The plan was to have a vote in the House and to send the legislation to the Senate as a “privileged” bill, which would allow the Senate to take up the measure without having a cloture vote on the motion to proceed.
The maneuver would skip the 60 votes needed for the motion to proceed with the legislation and shave off the 30 hours of time that is normally needed after cloture is filed to vote on whether to end debate.
Still, even with this plan, the Senate would need 60 votes to proceed to final passage of the legislation.
But the timing for when the Senate would bring up the vote after the House acts remains in question.
Asked if he could offer an estimate for when the Senate would take up repeal legislation, Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, replied, “No, my friend, nobody knows that.”
Sources have said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) intends to bring the legislation to the floor before year’s end, but when the bill would come up amid other priorities — such as the START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement — remains in question.
Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said Monday there’s “nothing to announce yet” on when the bill would come to the floor and said Senate leadership is “still working on next steps for everything we have left to do.”
Some sources say the new repeal legislation could come to the floor as early as this week after the Senate resolves the extension the Bush-era tax cuts, but others say “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would come next week to the floor after additional measures are addressed.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he believes the START Treaty would come up “soon after” the Senate has finished work on the tax extension plan.
“Obviously it’s unclear yet the number of hours of debate after the procedural vote today before the Senate takes up for final passage of the tax agreement,” he said. “But I think fairly soon after, the Senate will move to the debate on START ratification.”
Still, Gibbs said he thinks “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is part of the “basket of issues” that the Senate will take up before adjourning for the year.
“I think there’s no doubt that based on the votes last week, it’s clear that a majority of the Senate supports the President’s position of doing away with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — repealing that,” Gibbs said. “Certainly our hope is that the Senate will take this up again and it will see this done by the time the year ends.”
The Senate Democratic aide said another attempt to bring up the defense authorization bill — this time with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” language and other provisions stripped — could come up first for a vote before the standalone repeal bill.
“My strong guess is that the defense bill will have ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and some other sensitive provisions stricken out so that the defense bill could pass fairly easily, and then we could move on to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which I think has 60 votes,” the aide said.