Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Thursday expressed confidence about having the necessary 60 votes to move forward with legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — provided certain conditions are met with the amendment process on the Senate floor.
“I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization bill with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ if only there will be a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process,” Lieberman said during a news conference. “In other words, whether we’ll take enough time to do it.”
Lieberman makes the remarks after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Wednesday he’s committed to bringing to the floor in the lame duck session the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill, which contains language that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The legislation would likely come up after Dec. 1, when a Pentagon working group is due to deliver a report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on implementing repeal.
Lieberman said he’s received assurances from GOP senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) as well as “others privately” that they would be open to moving forward with defense legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provided there’s an “open amendment process” in bringing the bill to the floor.
A previous attempt in September at bringing the defense authorization bill to the floor failed when a united GOP caucus — led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — successfully filibustered the motion to proceed.
Many senators, including Collins and Lugar, who supported a repeal amendment in committee, said they were voting “no” because of limited amendments that senators would be allowed to submit for the legislation.
In September, Reid said he was permitting three amendments to the defense authorization bill: one to strip the bill of its repeal provision, one to address the “secret holds” that senators can place on presidential nominations and another to amend the defense legislation with the DREAM Act, an immigration-related bill.
Asked during the conference what he perceived as more open amendment process the next time around, Lieberman the exact terms are up for negotiation.
“It’s hard to put a number on it now,” Lieberman said. “That’s what I hope is going to be negotiated. Of course, we’ll do our best to encourage Sen. Reid to reach out to allow and somewhat larger number.”
Lieberman said the two items that are up for negotiation are the number of amendments to be allowed and the time for debate on those amendments.
Reid has since said the DREAM Act would come to the Senate floor during lame duck as a standalone piece of legislation.
Following the news conference, Lieberman said the removal of the DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill would “practically speaking” help with building support for moving forward with the military budget legislation.
But Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who present at the conference, said opposition to the defense authorization bill and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is actually for reasons other than “how many amendments are we going to do, or long we’re going to debate.”
“This is about those who oppose this policy wanting to kill it and taking every opportunity they can and using the Senate rules to try and do that,” Shaheen said. “That’s exactly what’s going on here.”
Lieberman also maintained the Senate would have enough time to tackle “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as it addresses other priorities, such as a nuclear arms reduction treaty and the extension of tax cuts.
“We’re just before Thanksgiving,” Lieberman said. “We’ve been told early on that we’d be here at least three weeks. That’s a lot of time into December, so we’ll be here at least until the week before Christmas. It’s just a question of how hard we’re prepared to work to get these things done. They’re all important.”
Lieberman said President Obama “has been active” on this issue and has been in communication with Reid as well as Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on moving forward with the defense authorization bill with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“I think he’ll, in my opinion, do everything he can to see that we get this done by the end of this year,” Lieberman said.
The news conference on Thursday was a hot spot for senators who advocate for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Among the 13 lawmakers who made an appearance were Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) who recently took his seat after winning election in November.
Udall said Congress needs to take action to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year because further delay could it “could be years” for repeal to happen.
“We’ve reached an unprecedented level of gridlock here in the Senate when legislation that funds our troops provides for our national security and makes sure that we lead the world in the 21st century is blocked from even coming to the floor for debate,” Udall said. “We ought to welcome the debate — we have an idea of how that debate will turn out — but we’re going to have that opportunity to have this vote on the floor if we have courage and are steadfast.”
The senators joked among themselves that they would work through Christmas Eve — or for Lieberman, who’s Jewish, the eighth day of Hanukkah — to finish the effort in repealing”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Sen. Roland Burris, known as a strong voice for repeal during his tenure in the Senate, said he thinks ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be an important victory, but noted the vote in the Senate “may come too late” for show his support.
Because he was appointed to his position in the Senate in 2009, Burris is required by Illinois state law to give up his seat to Republican Senator-elect Mark Kirk during the lame duck session of Congress and may even leave the U.S. Senate this week.
“As a black American, I know what it means to go through discrimination and unfairness, and there’s no way in the world we can have a strong military and deny those persons who are gay and lesbian … an opportunity to serve their country,” Burris said. “I support that wholeheartedly and am just sorry that I may not be here to cast the vote.”
It remains to be seen how Kirk would vote on the legislation in Burris’ stead. As a U.S. House member, Kirk voted against a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal amendment in May that came to the House floor.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went a step further than other senators at the news conference when she said she believes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is unconstitutional. Some repeal advocates have been asking for President Obama to declare the law unconstitutional so he could discontinue enforcement of the law.
“I’m not a lawyer, but I believe in my heart of hearts that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is unconstitutional,” Feinstein said. “As a matter of fact, a federal district court has found that that, in fact, is the case, and it’s simple because it treats the same case of people differently.”
Still, not every member of the U.S. Senate is on board with repeal. Asked during the news conference whether he had spoken to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about getting him to support an end to the law, Lieberman said he has had such conversations, but he has had “no success” in converting the Arizona senator.
Among those present at the news conference were advocates working for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs for the Center for American Progress, and Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a gay Air Force pilot who’s served in the military for 19 years, was also present at the conference and told his story about how he’s now facing potential discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Right now, my ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is somewhere in the Pentagon, and I am fighting back in federal court with SLDN and my legal team to stay in the Air Force,” he said.