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Murphy amendment certified for House consideration

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The House Rules Committee late Wednesday found in order an amendment to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing for a vote on the measure when lawmakers take up major defense budget legislation.

Lawmakers on the panel approved the amendment, introduced by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), by voice vote as part of a rule governing debate for the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill.

The Rules Committee is charged with determining what rule governs the debate on legislation that comes to the House floor, including the length of time for discussion and whether certain amendments will be allowed.

The committee’s certification of Murphy’s amendment means the measure will be able to come to the floor when lawmakers take up the defense budget legislation, which is scheduled to happen either Thursday or Friday.

The rule allows for 10 minutes of debate on the Murphy amendment before House lawmakers take an up-or-down vote on the measure.

In testimony before the committee, Murphy urged lawmakers to find his amendment in order so that Congress could move forward with doing away with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Murphy brought particular attention to the case of former Army Sergeant Darren Manzella, a gay soldier who served in Iraq war and was discharged in 2008 after he came out to his comrades and talked about his story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

“I’m here today for Darren and for the 13,500 brave servicemen and women kicked out of the military simply because they are gay,” Murphy said. “The arguments in support of this policy are weak and outdated, and the time to repeal this policy is now.”

Murphy said the U.S. military is “stretched thin” and it makes no sense to “kick out people who want to serve — who are willing to serve and die for their country.”

Following Murphy’s remarks, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker and member of the Rules Committee, choked back on tears as he expressed appreciation to Murphy for championing the issue to end what he called one of the last “bastions of discrimination.”

After he left the witness stand, Murphy embraced Polis briefly before leaving the committee room.

Murphy told the Blade he feels “very good” as the votes approach both the House floor and the Senate Armed Services Committee later this week.

“I think I’m confident of the votes in the House and also in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Murphy said. “And I think it’s good for national security, and for the American taxpayer, not to waste our money.”

Polis told the Blade he was similarly hopeful about the passage of Murphy’s amendment, which he said would allow “the military to end the [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] policy, which is the stated intention of the commander-in-chief.”

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be passing it on the floor of the House [Thursday],” he said.

A Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the defense authorization bill could come up for consideration on Thursday, but may be pushed back for consideration of jobs legislation.

“Consideration of the defense authorization is still expected to start [Thursday], but it is possible that the [“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] amendment from Rep. Murphy could be pushed into Friday,” the aide said.

The aide said the delay will “allow additional time for the whip effort” and supporters of repeal in the House “continue to be very optimistic on the amendment’s chances.”

While certifying Murphy’s amendment, the committee blocked consideration of a substitute amendment by a vote of 3-8 that would have revised the terms of reference for the Pentagon study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and require that it be delivered to Congress well as the military service chiefs. 

The amendment was offered by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking Republican of the House Armed Services Committee.

In testimony before the committee, McKeon said his amendment would have mandated the Pentagon examine what impact repeal would have on the Defense of Marriage Act as well as readiness and unit cohesion.

In a possible preview of what will happen with the Murphy amendment when it reaches the House floor, lawmakers on the panel were split on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Some members of the Rules Committee expressed support for moving legislatively to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at this time while others said they wanted to hold off until the Pentagon completes its review.

McKeon said in testimony he was among those wanting to wait until the Defense Department working group completes its work.

“We don’t know what effect this would have on recruitment, retention and morale,” he said. “Not making Mr. Murphy’s amendment in order would be keeping the faith with the two-and-a-half million men and women in uniform … in saying that their voices do count.”

McKeon said he received letters this week from the service chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps asking Congress to hold off on repeal until the Pentagon study is complete.

Earlier in the day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an opponent of repeal, also made public four letters from the service chiefs asking Congress to refrain from taking action at this time.

In one of the letters to McCain, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said Congress should wait for the study to be complete “as a matter of keeping faith with those currently serving in the armed forces.”

“To do otherwise, in my view, would be presumptive and would reflect an intent to act before all relevant factors are assessed, digested and understood,” Schwartz said.

But in a response to these letters, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili wrote in a letter made public later in the day that Congress should act on the pending legislation.

“While I fully agree that Congress should take no action that usurps the Pentagon’s evaluation process and recommendations, there is nothing in those letters that gives Congress any reason to delay enacting the legislative compromise that was proposed this week,” Shalikashvili said.

Also speaking out during the hearing in opposition to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal at this time was Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.).

Dreier, who supported “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when it was enacted in 1993, said he would be inclined to support repeal of the law but only after the Pentagon has time to complete its study.

“I wonder why it is that we need to have this vote at this moment,” he said. “We are just a few months away from getting a report that I suspect will allow for the opportunity to ensure that people aren’t thrown of the military who want to have a chance to serve their country.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) also didn’t speak favorably about a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” although his opposition wasn’t as strong as other opponents of repeal during the committee discussion.

Skelton recalled the April 30 letter in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would “strongly oppose” legislative action at this time. Skelton also emphasized the importance of the study as a way to inform how to move forward on the issue, saying it’s “not a rubber stamp.”

But Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a strong supporter of repeal, was particularly passionate about Congress moving to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” immediately.

“What we’ve failed to mention is that 14,000 people in this 17-year period of time have been put out of the military,” he said. “Some of them were people that had specialties that are hard to replace.”

Hastings said he knows of at least 16 people who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that specialized in Arabic translation.

Also in support of Congress moving now to address the issue was Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who said a study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t necessary for Congress to know that it should act against discrimination.

“To me, it just comes down to this simple view that I have, which is an important view, and that is prejudice and bigotry are wrong, whether it is in the workplace or in the armed forces,” he said.

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New Biden campaign hire is the first LGBTQ national organizing director

Roohi Rustum joins the reelection effort from the DNC

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President Joe Biden at the Rose Garden of the White House (Screen shot/Independent UK)

The Biden-Harris reelection campaign announced on Wednesday that Roohi Rustum has been tapped to serve as its national organizing director, becoming the first woman of color and the first LGBTQ person to serve in this role for a general election presidential campaign.

Rustum, who is Bangladeshi-American, was most recently the interim national organizing director for the Democratic National Committee, where she led early organizing efforts for the campaign in Arizona and Wisconsin and also directed “get out the vote” initiatives for key 2023 races like Kentucky’s gubernatorial and Virginia’s state legislative elections, which saw sweeping Democratic victories.

Prior to her role with the DNC, Rustum was national relational organizing director for the Biden-Harris 2020 presidential campaign, and she also worked on the organizing infrastructure for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign.

“This campaign will prioritize face to face voter contact and run a strong, present, brick and mortar operation — while also employing the best lessons from 2020 and 2022 on effective campaigning in online spaces,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Battleground States Director Dan Kanninen. “I can’t think of anyone better to build a field army that can do both than Roohi.”

Along with Rustum’s new role, the campaign announced on Wednesday that Alana Mounce will serve as its political director, and Meredith Horton will be national director for voter protection and access.

“I’m thrilled to have these battle-tested operatives join our team. This is a team with unparalleled expertise, creativity, and grit that will be critical to winning this November,” Biden-Harris 2024 Campaign Manager Julie Chavez-Rodriguez said.

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Congress

McConnell to step down from Senate leadership in November

Ky. Republican has been in chamber since 1985

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Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the longest serving Senate leader in history, announced on Wednesday that he will step down from his position in November but will continue serving the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2027.

Aides said that McConnell’s decision was unrelated to concerns about his health, which followed two instances last year in which he froze when delivering public remarks after suffering a concussion from a fall.

The Senate leader is facing pressure to endorse former President Donald Trump’s run for a second term in the White House, which a GOP colleague told the Guardian is likely to come despite the rift between the men that deepened in 2020 when McConnell refused to co-sign the lie that President Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate.

“I am unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world,” McConnell said in his announcement from the Senate floor, in what appeared to be an acknowledgment of his ideological differences with Republicans who support Trump’s brand of isolationist foreign policy.

Serving in the Senate since 1985, McConnell was first elected as the Republican leader in 2006 and has since won each of the consecutive nine elections, most recently staving off a challenge from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) last November.

McConnell opposed LGBTQ rights throughout his career

Since the mid-2000s, McConnell has leveraged his power in the Senate to fight against marriage equality, as documented by the GLAAD Accountability Project. He also opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.

McConnell opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and more recently blocked a vote on an amendment that would have stopped Trump’s ban on military service by transgender service members.

Also during Trump’s presidency, McConnell appointed anti-LGBTQ activist Tony Perkins to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

He voted against employment protections for LGBTQ federal workers and LGBTQ inclusive policies on hate crimes and, in the 1990s, joined the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) efforts to protect U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who were critical of the agency’s pro-LGBTQ policies and to prohibit the use of federal funds by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for collecting information about teenage sexual behavior.

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Congress

Partisan disagreements imperil efforts to redress harms of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Challenges come despite bipartisan interest in addressing the problem

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U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite bipartisan agreement over the need to bring justice to U.S. service members who were harmed by discriminatory military policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” competing legislative efforts have divided members of Congress and sparked accusations that both Democrats and Republicans are “playing politics” with the issue.

Following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, thousands of veterans who were discharged other than honorably over their sexual orientation continue to face barriers finding housing and employment, with many unable to access federal benefits that otherwise would be available to them.

The Pentagon has endeavored to address the problem, but advocates say the agency has been too slow to act while service members, rather than the Department, bear the considerable burden of requesting reviews of their papers – a process so complicated that many have had to seek legal counsel for help navigating the bureaucratic red tape.

Gay U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus, has long worked to address the challenges faced by veterans who are in this position with his Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which he first introduced in 2013 and re-introduced several times over the years, most recently in 2023.

Among the subsequent iterations were the bicameral version introduced in 2019 by Pocan and U.S. Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) along with U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and another that was introduced in the Senate last year by Schatz, which was backed by Republican U.S. Sens. Todd Young (Ind.) and Susan Collins (Maine).

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2024 was passed in the Senate with provisions taken from the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, including directions for the Pentagon to establish a “Tiger Team” to “build awareness among veterans of the process established [by the NDAA in FY 2020] for the review of discharge characterizations by appropriate discharge boards.”

Pocan, along with caucus co-chairs U.S. Reps. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) and Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last month to request information to facilitate implementation of the department’s decision to (1) review records for service members who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (2) forward cases to their respective secretaries to consider correction through the service boards, and (3) reach out to veterans to make sure they are kept up to speed throughout the process.

Last week, however, another bill targeting the same issue, the Recover Pride in Service Act, was announced by Republican U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (Ore.) in conjunction with Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBT group.

A spokesperson for the congresswoman told the Washington Blade in a statement, “There’s a significant difference between the two bills. The Recover Pride in Service Act requires the Department of Defense to automatically upgrade all discharges that were solely based on sexual orientation within five years.”

The spokesperson continued, “This key provision would ensure veterans adversely impacted by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell won’t have to endure an arduous and costly application process and can get their status updated without having to lift a finger. I would also note that just 10 percent of LGBTQ+ veterans have had their discharges upgraded, and that’s because of the application process. Only requiring an outreach group isn’t enough.”

The Recover Pride in Service Act would also, per the press release announcement, establish an “Outreach Unit” to contact service members who were discharged for their sexual orientation along with other reasons specified in their papers. The bill promises to simplify administrative requirements and includes a provision stipulating that “a lack of documentation cannot be used as a basis for denying a review, and the responsibility of finding and producing relevant documentation lies with the DOD, not the service member.”

“If Republicans truly cared about helping veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ they would have signed on to the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which has been around for a decade and has support among the broader LGBTQI+ community,” Pocan told the Blade in a statement.

“Instead, they introduced a bill that plays partisan politics with the issue rather than advance it,” he said. “If we really want to do something to help veterans, there is a decade-long effort to get that done. Posing for pictures with a duplicative effort doesn’t get us closer to the goal.”

Log Cabin Republicans Senior Advisor Alex Walton told the Blade by phone last week that “discussions about the Restore Honor to Service Members Act all happened close to eight to nine months ago before we kind of shifted focus when we realized that they weren’t going to cooperate and work with us.”

Walton said that while there was significant interest in joining Pocan’s bill among House Republicans, “they were only going to do it assuming that Democrats were going to match the number of Republicans that co-sponsored the legislation, so you didn’t have 150 Democrats and, you know, 12 Republicans.” A source familiar with the discussions said Pocan was never asked to limit the number of Democratic cosponsors.

Additionally, Walton said, the House Republicans “also wanted a Republican lead,” but Pocan “was unwilling to let that happen.”

Months later, Walton said Pocan and House Democrats remained uncooperative in discussions over the Recover Pride in Service Act, the bill that was ultimately introduced by Chavez-DeRemer.

Meanwhile, he said, “We spoke to over 90 Republican offices, both in the House and the Senate, and we had a lot of conversations about this issue in general. And one of the things that we kept hearing from Republican offices is if a piece of legislation like this is going to pass, you’re gonna have to cut bureaucratic extras that are included in the Pocan version of the bill, and you’re just gonna have to get directly to the problem. And that’s what the legislation does by requiring the DOD to proactively upgrade these discharges.”

With Republicans holding the majority in the House, Walton said, Log Cabin and Republican members wanted a Republican lead sponsor on the bill in the lower chamber, while discussions were held with Senate Democrats with the expectation that a Democrat would be lead sponsor of the Senate version of the Recover Pride in Service Act.

Walton added that Pocan was offered the opportunity to be the lead Democratic member in the House — a claim that is disputed by the source familiar with the talks, who said the Wisconsin congressman was not consulted as the Recover Pride in Service Act was being drafted.

Pocan told the Blade, in a separate statement, that “I’ve had the Restore Honor to Service Members Act available for co-sponsorship for 12 years. Unfortunately, only a few Republicans have been interested in signing on. I welcome additional support. The best way to help our wrongly discharged veterans is to work in a bipartisan fashion with the members who’ve been working on this for a decade.”

He added, “I’ve been focused on getting justice for veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for years, which is why part of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act became law several years ago” with the NDAA. “Losing the majority doesn’t mean I should surrender the rest of my bill —that’s not how Congress works. But I do welcome any support from Republicans who haven’t drunk the anti-equality Kool-Aid.”

Walton said that by refusing to work with Republicans in good faith, “Pocan put himself over all of these veterans,” adding, “I’m not disregarding everything Pocan has done for gays and lesbians in Congress. But the reality is that he put himself and his own pride in this legislation over actually getting stuff done.”

Walton stressed the broad ideological base of support for Chavez-DeRemer’s bill among House Republicans, 13 of whom have signed on as co-sponsors. Along with more moderate members, “we have extremely conservative Republicans on this legislation,” he said.

Those co-sponsoring members are GOP Reps. Kat Cammack (Fla.), Andrew Garbarino (N.Y.), Anthony D’Esposito (N.Y.) Nicole Malliotakis (N.Y.), Nancy Mace (S.C.), Derrick Van Orden (Wis.), Juan Ciscomani (Ariz.), Ken Calvert (Calif.), John Duarte (Calif.), Mark Amodei (Nev.), Mike Turner (Ohio), Max Miller (Ohio), and Mike Carey (Ohio).

Several of these House Republicans have voted for anti-LGBTQ military policies, such as prohibitions on Pride month celebrations at U.S. military bases and provisions allowing employees at the Defense Department and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discriminate against LGBTQ service members if they oppose, for instance, same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

House must pass spending bills by Friday

Meanwhile, House Republicans have held up passage of critical spending bills by insisting on conservative policy mandates that stand no chance of passing in the Senate with Democrats in the majority, nor of being signed into law by President Joe Biden.

If they are not able to reach an agreement by Friday, funding will lapse for military construction, agriculture, transportation, and housing programs. A full government shutdown would be triggered if spending packages are not passed by March 8.

The Equality Caucus, in a post on X Monday, said, “Just a reminder as we barrel towards a gov’t shutdown this week: House Republicans’ partisan funding bills include more than 45 provisions attacking the LGBTQI+ community.”

They added, “The House GOP needs to stop playing games with queer people’s rights & agree to bipartisan funding bills.”

Historically, appropriations packages have been cleared by both chambers with wide bipartisan margins.

During a conference call on Friday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) told GOP members they were unlikely to see many of their policy priorities included in the spending bills. He met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday, alongside other congressional leaders including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to continue negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline.

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