The announcement that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) would introduce “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal legislation next week in the U.S. Senate was hailed by many opponents of the law as an important step toward undoing the nation’s ban on service by open gays and lesbians.
But some are questioning the wisdom of Lieberman introducing a standalone bill when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal can be accomplished through other methods.
According to an internal memo obtained by DC Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign is taking credit for landing Lieberman as the champion for repeal in the Senate.
“Additionally, working with the White House and Senate leadership, HRC has secured Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) as the Senate lead sponsor — someone who not only sits on the Armed Services Committee, but also brings a centrist approach and net to this issue,” says the memo.
The HRC memo also addresses the strategy of winning repeal via the defense authorization bill and notes particular concern about where members of the Senate Armed Services Committee stand on the issue.
“Including [repeal] in the base [Department of Defense] authorization bill will require a vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” says the memo. “Only one Republican on the committee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), is likely to support repeal. In addition, a number of key Democrats do not currently support repeal: Sens. Robert Byrd (D-WV), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Jim Webb (D-VA). Securing a minimum of two of these five Democrats is essential. Nelson, Bayh and Webb are the three best prospects.”
The memo also says that convincing House members from New Jersey and Texas to sign on in support will be crucial for House passage of the bill.
Last month, a group of LGBT advocates held a secret strategy meeting related to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A source who attended the meeting, speaking to DC Agenda on condition of anonymity, questioned why HRC pursued the Lieberman-led path for repeal when the consensus among many lobbyists is that including repeal as part of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill is the best route.
“As for Lieberman, I would just say I applaud that he did it because there has not been a bill in the Senate and now we can start asking people to sign on and figure out where people are, but I’m not sure that it’s not just a diversion tactic to show that HRC’s done something,” the activist said.
In a statement, Allison Herwitt, HRC’s legislative director, said her organization has been working with Lieberman for months about introducing standalone legislation because “it’s an important educational and organizing tool.”
“It helps constituents lobby their senators to co-sponsor and publicly support repeal,” she said. “Introduction of a bill in no way precludes strategy involving the Defense Department Authorization bill.”
Kevin Nix, spokesperson for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said that HRC was not alone in pursuing Lieberman as lead sponsor of repeal legislation and noted that his organization has worked with the senator for some time.
“We’ve been working with Lieberman for, I think, years — just like HRC has been, as well,” he said.
Nix said despite the imminent introduction of a standalone “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal bill, advancement of the effort as part of the upcoming defense authorization bill is “absolutely” the best way to go.
“Obviously, it’s historic,” he said. “We welcome all of this stuff with Lieberman, and introducing a standalone bill is hugely significant, but if we’re going to get legislative repeal this year, then the repeal language needs to be in the authorization bill, and we’ll be working with [Senate Armed Services Committee] Chairman [Carl] Levin to make sure the votes are there.”
In a statement, Lieberman said he’d proudly sponsor “the important effort to enable patriotic gay Americans to defend our national security and our founding values of freedom and opportunity.”
“To exclude one group of Americans from serving in the armed forces is contrary to our fundamental principles as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and weakens our defenses by denying our military the service of a large group of Americans who can help our cause,” he said.
News of Lieberman’s bill was first reported by Jamie Kirchick in the New York Daily News. Several important details about Lieberman’s upcoming legislation weren’t immediately revealed this week, though, such as whether any Republican senators have signed on as co-sponsors. It’s also unknown whether the legislation will call for the same timeline for repeal provided in the House legislation sponsored by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).
Servicemembers United, a gay veterans group, is calling for a longer implementation time that would allow 18 months for the Pentagon to first complete its expected yearlong study of implementing repeal.
Lane Hudson, a D.C.-based gay activist, said the “devil will be in the details” for Lieberman’s bill and that he’s hoping the senator incorporates the timeline advocated by Servicemembers United.
“As long as Lieberman is going to introduce viable legislation, I think he’s an excellent person to be the chief sponsor,” Hudson said. “He’s got a great relationship with the Blue Dogs in the Senate caucus, and he’s probably the best Democrat to keep [Republican U.S. Sen.] John McCain from fiercely opposing repeal.”