Gay rights supporters continue to express optimism that the Senate is on its way to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as Republican senators have reportedly threatened to withdraw support from a nuclear arms reduction treaty if a vote on the miltary’s gay ban proceeds as planned.
According to Congressional Quarterly, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have said they would no longer support the START Treaty if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proceeds with a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the DREAM Act, an immigration-related bill.
Reid on Thursday night filed cloture on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation as well as the DREAM Act. The vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could come as soon as Saturday if the Senate fails to invoke cloture first on the DREAM Act.
On the Senate floor, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) predicted the treaty’s failure if the chamber moves onto what he called “partisan, political, issues, brought forth to basically accommodate activist groups around this country,” presumably referring to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and immigration.
“I’m hoping that those will be taken down or else I don’t think the future of the START treaty over the next several days is going to be successful, based on what I’m watching,” Corker said.
On the Senate floor, McCain seemed to distance himself from Corker and dispute the reporting that he and Graham were basing their support for the START Treaty on other measures that were coming to the floor.
“There continues to swirl allegations that there is going to be a vote for it or against it because of another piece of legislation or for other reasons — for other political reasons,” McCain said. “I reject that allegation.”
Brooke Buchanan, a McCain spokesperson, said via e-mail to the Washington Blade, that the assertions that McCain is threatening to withdraw support from the START Treaty over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are “not true.”
“McCain will base his support on START on the merits of the Treaty and if his concerns regarding Missile Defense have been addressed,” Buchanan said.
Graham’s office didn’t respond on short notice to the Blade’s request for comment on the issue.
An informed source said Congressional Quarterly is standing by its reporting in the article.
The START Treaty has been a priority for the White House in the lame duck session of Congress and support from McCain and Graham is seen as essential to reaching the 67-vote threshold necessary to ratify the treaty.
The reported ultimatum offered by Republicans senator could put the White House and Democratic leadership in the difficult position of having to choose between the two agenda items.
Still, the plan seems to be to continue with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as planned. Regan Lachapelle, a Reid spokesperson, said Senate leadership intends to hold a vote Saturday as announced Thursday.
A White House spokesperson didn’t respond on short notice to a request for comment on whether the reported threats from Republicans would disrupt plans for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Optimism over ‘Don’t Ask’ vote
Amid these reported threats, supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal said prospects look good for the Senate vote and pledged to keep up the pressure until Congress finishes the job.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of the stand-alone bill, said he’s “very optimistic” the legislation will pass the Senate and noted the bill currently has more than 50 co-sponsors.
“But we know it ain’t over till it’s over and until all the votes are counted,” Lieberman said.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, also predicted the Senate will vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Saturday.
“I believe senators will do that,” Sarvis said. “I think we’re going to have a good weekend, and I just want to say we are delighted to be here after 17 years having this historic opporunity. I believe we’re on the brink of victory in the next day or two.”
To increase pressure on the Senate, gay troops who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and who are affiliated with SLDN are pledging to sit in the Senate gallery until the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal vote is taken.
Sarvis said these service members have come to the Senate to say they’re going to stay here until the Senate repeals “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“So between now and adjournment, these service members and others like them — somewhere between two and 10 each hour — will be in the Senate galleries until the Senate acts,” Sarvis said.
Anthony Woods, an Army Iraq war veteran who was discharged in 2008, said during the news conference that implementation of open service in the U.S. military would have no impact on battle effectiveness.
“My soldiers didn’t care about anyone’s sexual orientation,” Woods said. “I was an armor officer, so we were on tanks in some of the toughest of parts of Iraq and it didn’t matter one bit what someone’s sexual orientation was.”
During the news conference, other lawmakers who have worked to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” railed against the gay ban as they called for an end to the law.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she thinks “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “unconstiutional” as she commended gay service members for serving under “difficult circumstances.”
“I want to thank you for your dedication and commitment despite such difficulties and despite such requirements that, I think, fundamentally, are not only unfair and unconstitutional, but in violation of who we are as Americans,” Gillibrand said.
Many gay rights advocates have been calling on President Obama to declare “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” unconstitutional so he could discontinue enforcement of the law.
A vote for final passage normally takes place 30 hours after the Senate invokes cloture on a bill, but Lieberman said a final vote could take place on the same day if cloture is invoked and the Senate has unanimous consent to move forward ahead of time.
“I hope that we may reason together and decide to yield back some time and perhaps get to final passage tomorrow before the end of the day.”
If all 57 senators who voted in favor of the motion to proceed last week on the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill vote to invoke cloture on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation, only three more votes would be needed to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to move forward with the bill.
Lieberman has said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who didn’t vote this month on the defense authorization bill, would vote in favor of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stand-alone bill. Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have also indicated they would support the stand-alone bill, which should bring the vote tally up to 61.
Still, SLDN has included Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on its list of senators whom repeal supporters need to pressure before the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” vote. If Conrad votes “no” or takes a walk, his action could put the repeal bill right at the 60-vote threshold neeeded to go forward — or even below that threshold if there are any surprises.
During the news conference, Lieberman declined to elaborate on what he believed Conrad’s position was on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and said he’d let the North Dakota senator speak for himself.
“I think you’ll have to talk to him,” Lieberman said. “Let’s say for now, I’m confident that got more than 60 votes.”
Conrad’s office didn’t respond on short notice to a request to comment on how the senator would vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Amendments not an issue for ‘Don’t Ask’ bill
Debate over amendments had previously been an issue with the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill to which “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was attached, which failed to pass in the Senate earlier this month, but that doesn’t seem to be a factor in the vote on the standalone repeal legislation.
Many Republican senators said they voted “no” on the defense authorization bill because they didn’t feel the amendment process for the legislation was fair to the minority party.
For the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation, Reid has “filled the tree” and is not permitting amendments on the bill to ensure that the legislation the Senate approves will be identical to the measure passed earlier this week by the House.
Lachapelle said the cloture vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “an opportunity for senators to show where they stand on the issue.”
“Amendments at this point would only serve to kill the bill,” she said.
Even though senators who expressed support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have previously voted “no” on the defense authorization bill based on concerns on the amendment process, Lieberman said no senators who have been supportive said they would vote “no” based on amendment on the standalone bill.
In fact, Lieberman said two senators — Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowksi (R-Alaska) — confirmed they would vote in favor of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” bill even with no amendments.”
“Although both of them wanted their to be a number of amendments allowed on the defense authorization bill, they said that was very different because it was a big bill, 900 pages — there ought to be a free and reasonable debate,” Lieberman said. “The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I think, at this point is four or five pages.”
Lieberman said both Collins and Murkowski indicated that opponents of repeal “will have full opportunity to speak against it, but we ought not to give people the opportunity to delay it further or try to pass an amemdment that effectively kill the bill.”