January 27, 2010 at 12:43 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Pressure builds on Obama to address “Don’t Ask” in State of the Union

President Obama is facing increased pressure from opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to address how he’ll tackle his pledge to overturn the law in his upcoming State of the Union speech.

Those seeking end the 1993 law banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military are looking to Obama to discuss on Wednesday his plans for overturning the ban this year.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he’s received “strong indications” that Obama will address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his speech, but said he doesn’t believe the president “will go as far as some in our community would like.”

“There is some strategic risk involved in mentioning ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the State of the Union address, but its inclusion will send a strong message that the White House is still serious about taking on the issue this year,” Nicholson said.

The Human Rights Campaign declined to comment on whether the inclusion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the State of the Union address prior to Obama’s speech.

On Wednesday, two prominent opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili — issued a joint statement through the senator’s office reiterating their belief that now is the time for overturning the law.

Shalikashvili said a country “built on the principle of equality” should embrace “change that will build a stronger, more cohesive military.”

“It is time to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and allow our military leaders to create policy that holds our service members to a single standard of conduct and discipline,” he said.

Gillibrand was similarly critical of the ban and called it “an unjust, outdated and harmful rule that violates the civil rights of some of our bravest, most heroic men and women.”

“I’ve been working with my colleagues in Congress and other leaders to overturn this wasteful and destructive policy,” she said. “I am hopeful that President Obama will make this a top priority.”

Whether or not President Obama will address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his State of the Union speech remains uncertain, although there are signs he will include it in his address.

On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters he had postponed a hearing on the issue initially set for this month because he was told Obama may talk about the ban in his State of the Union address.

And White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a press conference on Tuesday that discussions are underway about including plans for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the speech.

The Palm Center, a think-tank for gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Tuesday issued an analysis on several ways that Obama could discuss “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the State of the Union address.

Christopher Neff, deputy executive director for the Palm Center, said in a statement the speech presents Obama with “the opportunity to announce the end of one of the most notorious policies of federal discrimination left standing in the United States.”

In one option outlined by the Palm Center, Obama could offer a legislative strategy to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The president could endorse standalone legislation that would overturn the law or announce he’ll include such language in the defense spending request he’ll send to Congress next month.

“This position would represent significant, but likely incremental, change,” the Palm Center states. “Repeal legislation faces hurdles to passage in 2010, but the President will have taken a major step forward with the base bill inclusion.”

Obama could also announce plans to change the execution of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” administratively without an act from Congress, which would likely involve giving Defense Secretary Robert Gates additional discretion in implementing the policy in a way that would reduce discharges, according to the Palm Center.

“Under this calculus, there will not be any votes in the House or Senate on repeal in 2010,” the Palm Center states. “The judgment is that it is too difficult for many moderates and this likely means that repeal will not be included in the Defense Authorization base bill from the Pentagon.”

The third option for Obama in addressing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” according to the Palm Center, would be mentioning the law in passing or announcing support from military leaders without putting forward an affirmative strategy.

“This would represent the least embraced of the three potential options,” the Palm Center states.

Neff also suggested in the statement that how Obama addresses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his State of the Union speech will set for tone for how Congress would handle hearings for the defense budget after the president’s request is made public.

Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen are set to give testimony on the fiscal year 2011 defense budget request on Tuesday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Bryan Thomas, spokesperson for the committee, said the hearing on the budget request isn’t in lieu of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearing initially set for January, but said it’s possible senators “will choose to ask” Mullen and Gates about the law.

Also bolstering pressure on Obama to announce his plans for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a new report from the Williams Institute, a think-tank on sexual orientation at the University of California. The brief details the number of gays in the military and the cost of replacing them after they’ve been discharged under the ban.

Gary Gates, senior research fellow at the Williams Institute and study author, said in a statement that statistical information from the U.S. government shows gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans have a presence in the military.

“Despite official policy requiring that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals remain silent about their sexual orientation, data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that an estimated 66,000 LGB men and women are serving in the U.S. military,” he said.

These 66,000 service members account for about 2.2 percent of military personnel, according to the Williams Institute. Of these troops, about 13,000 serve on active duty, constituting 0.9 percent of all active duty personnel, and nearly 53,000 serve in the National Guard and reserve forces, the study found.

The Williams Institute also found “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has cost the federal government between $290 million and more than a half a billion dollars since its inception and that replacing discharged service members under the ban costs between $22,000 to $43,000 for each person.

Gates said ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will “save a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars since estimates suggest that the policy has cost more than half a billion dollars.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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