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Sen. Ensign to support ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal: source (UPDATED)

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UPDATE: In a statement, Jennifer Cooper, an Ensign spokesperson, said the senator is awaiting the upcoming Pentagon working group report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and testimony from military service chiefs before making a decision on the issue. Additionally, she said Ensign intends to examine “all the merits” of the defense authorization bill before committing to a vote one way or another and is hoping for a “fully open amendment process.”

The complete statement follows:

“Senator Ensign is waiting on the report from the Pentagon and the testimony of the military chiefs to see if any changes to this policy can or should be done in a way so as not to harm the readiness or war fighting capabilities of our troops. Also, he plans to review all of the merits of the Defense Authorization bill before voting one way or another; hopefully it will be a fully open amendment process.”

Additionally, the Blade obtained a copy of Ensign’s constituent letter on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Notably, the letter states that the senator believes that Americans “regardless of the sexual orientation” should be able to “fight and risk their lives in defense of this great nation.”

Still, the letter states that “major changes to personnel structure” during a time of war “could be a major distraction” to the troops’ ability to complete their mission.

The complete letter follows:

Thank you for contacting me regarding the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I value the opinions of every Nevadan and am always grateful to those who take the time to inform me of their views.

As you may be aware, during the Clinton Administration, Congress enacted new laws and regulations regarding homosexuals and service in the U.S. military. This compromise, commonly known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” holds that service members are not to be asked about nor allowed to discuss their sexual orientation. The law also states that any uniformed individual is subject to discharge for engaging in, attempting to engage in, or soliciting prohibited conduct.

It is my firm belief that Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to fight and risk their lives in defense of this great nation. As a nation currently engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the focus of all decisions affecting military readiness, recruiting and retention, and unit cohesion should be to maximize the success of ongoing operations. Major changes to personnel structure while forces are undergoing intense training and being deployed to combat operations could be a major distraction and could degrade our troops’ ability to successfully complete the mission.

On February 2, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for a Department of Defense review of the policy. That review is expected to be completed in December of this year. I believe completing that review is necessary before further action is taken so that the concerns of our service members can be fully understood and addressed. All four of the military service chiefs have requested that the results of the review be in hand before legislative action is taken. As you may know, a federal judge in California recently attempted to supersede this process and ruled in court that the military must stop enforcing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Department of Justice has stated that it will appeal this ruling. I strongly oppose over-reaching by activist judges and believe that, once the DoD review is complete, the future of the military policy must be carefully considered by the Congress.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2011 contains a provision repealing the policy and was recently submitted for consideration by the Senate. The NDAA is traditionally a piece of legislation to which defense-related amendments can be offered, and each provision is extensively debated and considered. Had the NDAA come to the floor, the Senate then would have been able to debate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Unfortunately, Democrats attempted to use this year’s NDAA as a vehicle for non-defense-related provisions and refused to allow an open and fair bipartisan amendment process. As a result, I voted against consideration of the bill and it did not come to the Senate floor. The NDAA can still be brought to the floor during the lame duck session this year, but Democrats have announced their top three priorities for legislation after the elections and national defense did not make the list.

As a former member of the Senate Armed Service Committee and Ranking Member of its Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee, I assure you that I have the utmost respect for those men and women of our nation who choose to serve in the Armed Forces. I believe it is important to weigh competence, courage, and willingness to serve above all for those enlisting in the military. Please rest assured that I will keep your concerns, and the concerns of all Nevadans, in mind. Thank you, again, for sharing your thoughts with me. Please feel free to contact me in the future on matters of importance to you. Should you have any other questions or comments, please do not hesitate to either write or e-mail me via my website at http://ensign.senate.gov.

—————–

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) wants to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and intends to vote in favor of moving forward with defense budget legislation containing a provision that would end the law, according to the Stonewall Democratic Club of Southern Nevada.

Laura Martin, communications director for the club, said she and other activists on Thursday met with Margot Allen, Ensign’s regional representative on military issues, who informed the group of Ensign’s opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and intention to vote for the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill, which contains repeal language.

“The first question was about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his staffer said he supports repeal,” Martin said. “We asked her to clarify three times and she said he will vote in the affirmative on the defense authorization with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal in it.”

Martin said the question they asked was based on the condition that the vote would come up in December after the Pentagon working group completes its report on implementing repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We said after Dec. 1, when that report is out, and the defense authorization act is up for a vote with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ will the senator vote in the affirmative to pass it?” Martin said. “And she said, ‘He will.’ And we asked her to clarify that two more times and she said, ‘Yes, he wants it repealed.'”

Calls to Ensign’s office weren’t returned on short notice.

Ensign voted against the cloture vote on the motion to proceed to the defense authorization bill in September. During the summer, the Nevada senator told the Washington Blade in a brief exchange on Capitol Hill that he has “concern” about repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” However, Ensign said this concern was based on Congress acting before the Pentagon working group report was complete.

“The problem is you can’t go out and say to the military chiefs, ‘We’re going to survey you and see what you all think,’ and then you pass the bill to repeal it,” Ensign said at the time. “So the study should come first and then you can talk about the repeal or not of [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’]. So, yes, it is a concern simply because the study’s not done.”

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LGBTQ groups stop short of criticizing Sinema for obstructing filibuster reform

Bisexual senator rebuffs Biden on voting rights proposal

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has declared she won't support filibuster reform to pass voting legislation. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Despite an out bisexual being among two Democrats responsible for thwarting President Biden’s call to advance voting rights, LGBTQ groups that supported Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) stopped short of criticizing her directly for impeding legislation at the top of progressives’ wish lists.

Although the change being sought was limited to voting rights legislation, the refusal from Sinema to change the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to move legislation to the Senate floor as opposed to a simple majority, effectively put a stake in the heart of the legislative agenda for Democrats, including any possibility of enacting LGBTQ civil rights legislation like the Equality Act.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group, declined to identify Sinema by name in an organizational statement provided by a spokesperson via email in response to a Washington Blade inquiry on her refusal to change the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.

“The core of our democracy is the right to vote,” the statement says. “The United States Senate must act on legislation to protect that right now, including passage of federal voting rights and voting protection legislation. Without its essential safeguards guaranteeing that the voices of all voters — including LGBTQ+ Black, Brown and other minority voters — will be heard at the ballot box, we cannot ensure that any other right, even those currently enshrined in law, will be protected in the years to come.”

The closest the statement comes to criticizing Sinema, without actually doing so, is the final line: “As a result, we feel that it is necessary for the Senate to take whatever actions are required, including changes to Senate rules, to ensure a majority to pass this essential legislation.”

The Human Rights Campaign endorsed Sinema in the past as a candidate for U.S. Senate and hosted her as a special guest for fundraising and promotional events. It should be noted, JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s senior vice president of policy and political affairs, once worked for Sinema as chief of staff.

Asked whether HRC’s position was informed by Winterhof’s past work, the spokesperson replied: “Many of our staff have experience working on the Hill. Regardless of who they have worked for, we continue to believe that it is necessary for the Senate to take whatever actions are required, including changes to the Senate rules, to pass federal voting reform.”

Moments before Sinema was set last Thursday to meet with Biden on the filibuster, she took to the Senate floor preemptively and declared she wouldn’t budge.

“There’s no need for me to restate my long-standing support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation,” Sinema said.

Added Sinema: “When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes,” adding that she doesn’t support that outcome and “Arizonans do not either.”

Joining Sinema in refusing to budge on the filibuster is her fellow moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has proposed alternatives to the current state of Senate rules, but ultimately rejected the changes proposed by the caucus.

In contrast to the relatively muted response from LGBTQ groups, other civil rights organizations were quick to denounce Sinema and Manchin for supporting the filibuster, calling the Senate rules as they stand Jim Crow 2.0. Late Monday, Emily’s List announced it would no longer support Sinema for re-election over her position on voting rights.

Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights leader, compared Manchin and Sinema to white moderates who half-heartedly supported his father’s work.

“History will not remember them kindly,” the younger King said, referring to Sinema and Manchin by name, according to PBS News Hour.

One exception to LGBTQ groups declining to criticize Sinema was the National LGBTQ Task Force, which said the senator should be coming up with alternatives to filibuster reform.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the Task Force, said she’s been “asking questions because Sen. Sinema is known for being a supporter of so many pieces of progressive legislation and culture change related to queer people and women’s civil and human rights.”

“I want to see better and more, right?” Johnson said. “Yes, we should be working to build bridges across the aisle, across political ideology, but for me, the question is if you’re not going to support filibuster reform, then what are you supporting, and what is the pathway forward?”

Johnson added Sinema “owes it to the people who have supported her over the years to come up with these alternatives if she won’t support filibuster reform.”

Asked whether the Task Force has done any outreach to Sinema, Johnson said the organization is “in the process of trying to meet with her folks” and looking at ways to bring to her voices from LGBTQ movement community leaders.

Biden’s call to reform the filibuster — even though it was limited to voting rights legislation — may have been dead on arrival as Sinema and Manchin have consistently resisted efforts in the Senate to reform the filibuster. The efforts to change Senate rules, however, appeared to have new strength after Biden’s speech in Georgia last week making a plea for reform based on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the restrictive voting law passed in that state.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked Friday about Sinema and Manchin refusing to budge on the filibuster, said the administration would continue to push for voting rights legislation.

“I would say that the president’s view, as you heard him say yesterday, is that we’re going to continue to press to get this done moving forward,” Psaki said. “And that means continuing to engage with a range of officials who are supportive, some who have questions and some who are skeptical.”

Psaki pointed out Biden ended up having the meeting with Sinema despite her remarks on the floor, adding “that’s evidence of his continued commitment to keep engaging.”

The LGBTQ community, as with any issue, isn’t uniform in thinking Sinema should be obligated to have a certain view against the filibuster simply because she’s bisexual, or that LGBTQ groups should criticize her for being obstructionist.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, outright rejects calls for Sinema to support a change in rules because the filibuster “ensures that minority perspectives cannot be trampled by majoritarianism.”

“Portraying an LGBTQ woman as a gender and sexuality traitor shows a deep disrespect for our history,” the strategist added. “Sinema’s success in fighting for working families, vulnerable populations and LGBTQ rights is grounded in the belief that building large coalitions is how to best effect legal and social changes. Naturally, it follows she would be against a change in decades of Senate precedent that would prioritize hyper partisanship over persuasion.”

Biden’s speech in Georgia may have been more of an attempt to excite the progressive base as opposed to making a strategic push for filibuster reform. After all, his popularity is at an all-time low, which limits his influence. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll asking voters to grade Biden after his first year in office found 37 percent gave him an “F,” compared to the 31 who gave either “A” and “B,” which is a touch worse than Trump at this point in his presidency.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which has endorsed Sinema in the past, declined to make any declarations about withholding an endorsement when asked by the Washington Blade.

“Our Victory Fund Campaign Board – made up of more than 150 political leaders and advocates from across the country – votes to determine our endorsements,” said Elliot Imse, a Victory Fund spokesperson. “If Sen. Sinema runs for reelection, a review of her record as it relates to equality will of course be a primary consideration for whether she receives our endorsement. That board vote would take place, if she applies for endorsement, in late 2023 or 2024.”

Imse added as a U.S. senator Sinema is not currently up for election because after being elected in 2018 she is set to hold her seat for another four years.
 
“Sen. Sinema is not currently endorsed by Victory Fund and is not on an active ballot,” Imse said. “We last endorsed her in 2018 when she was running against Martha McSally – a right-wing extremist candidate vociferously opposed to equality for LGBTQ people.”

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Grenell emails reveal internal talk on Trump era policy against Pride flag

U.S. embassies barred from rainbow flag on official poles

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Ric Grenell, Richard Grenell, gay news, Washington Blade
Richard Grenell's emails reveals internal talk about the Pride flag policy at U.S. embassies. (Blade file photo)

The latest emails from the State Department obtained by the Washington Blade via its lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act reveal internal deliberation in the Trump administration over news reports about the prohibition of displaying Pride flags on the official pole at U.S. embassies.

Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, whose emails the Blade is seeking as the public face of a global initiative that pledged to decriminalize homosexuality, is repeatedly shown in the communications instructing his aides at the embassy in Berlin to give no comment to the media, including in response to an inquiry at the time from the Blade, on the flag policy for embassies.

“Thanks. Say nothing. I’m working it internally,” Grenell responds in an email chain after being updated on the latest media inquiries, which included requests from ABC’s Conor Finnegan, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and CBS.

It’s unclear what, if anything, Grenell was doing as part of “working it internally” as news broke that embassies were barred from flying Pride flags on the official pole, or even whether he was seeking a substantive change as opposed to crafting talking points to mitigate the appearance of the Trump administration being anti-LGBTQ.

“No Fox or local German press but I suspect that the latter will be coming today once they wake up and read other coverage,” writes Joseph Giordono-Scholz, who was handling media relations for the embassy. “Will continue as discussed, no responses.”

In 2019, shortly after Grenell announced he’d spearhead a global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality on behalf of the Trump administration, U.S. embassies that had sought to raise the rainbow flag in recognition of June as Pride month were barred from doing so under guidance from the State Department. 

Critics at the time jumped on the policy as further evidence the Trump administration was anti-LGBTQ, despite having recently launched the decriminalization initiative. Trump defenders pointed out the prohibition was limited to the official pole, was a general ban of flying any flag other than the U.S. flag, and embassies found other ways to display the Pride flag on their grounds.

Grenell didn’t respond Tuesday to the Blade’s request for comment on the meaning of “working it internally,” but Log Cabin Republicans, an organization close to Grenell, volunteered a message shortly after the Blade sent its inquiry to him.

Charles Moran, managing director of Log Cabin Republicans, said in the email the conception the Trump administration banned Pride flags at embassies is erroneous.

“We were very pleased that President Trump made it clear that pride flags could continue to be flown at embassies around the globe, despite logistical discussions internally being had at the State Department,” Moran said.

Attached in the email is an image of Moran standing below a pole with both a U.S. flag and a rainbow flag, which Moran said was taken at the U.S. Embassy Berlin on July 26, 2019, when he was en route to a decriminalization discussion forum being hosted there. 

Asked by the Blade whether that was the official pole, Moran replied, “I don’t know what an ‘official pole’ is. It was a professionally installed flag pole, on the embassy next to the front door.” Moran didn’t respond to an additional follow up question on what he meant by Trump making it clear Pride flags would be allowed at embassies.

Morgan Ortagus, then-spokesperson for the State Department, defended former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s policy against Pride flags on as she acknowledged “Pride Month that we’re in right now celebrated around the world by many State Department employees, by many embassies.”

“The secretary has the position that, as it related to the flag pole, that only the American flag should be flown there,” Ortagus said.

The email chain within the U.S. embassy in Berlin on the news development began with Giordono-Scholz forwarding Grenell a link to a story from NBC News’s Josh Lederman, who broke the story on U.S. embassies being unable to fly Pride flags, followed by a subsequent email with the text of his article. The immediacy with which the aide sends the link in an email first before the story itself in a subsequent message suggests a sense of urgency in distribution and awareness the article would be forthcoming.

Other news outlets were quick to follow up, including the Blade, as evidenced by Giordono-Scholz’s follow up question to Grenell after sharing the initial NBC News story.

“CNN (Michelle Kosinski) just called, asked if we had anything to add,” Giordono-Scholz writes. “Wash Blade also just emailed. How would like me to respond to these and coming inquiries — just point them to the NBC statement you gave and refer back to DC on questions about the Dept?”

Grenell was succinct in response: “Say nothing. Right now don’t respond.”

Giordono-Scholz acknowledges the instructions from Grenell in a subsequent email, which also notifies him of an inquiry from the Washington Post’s Carol Morello.

“Will continue to let you know about inquires but not respond to any,” Giordono-Scholz writes.

The emails were obtained in a FOIA production from the State Department this week as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Blade with attorneys at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. The litigation was filed in August 2021 after interminable delays in production of communications, which the Blade initially sought by a FOIA request in September 2020.

The State Department has identified tens of thousands of emails potentially responsive to the Blade’s request and is expected to release those it deems to be responsive periodically as a result of an agreement in the litigation.

Also ensnared in the latest email dump are communications on other foreign policy topics, including the Nord Strom 2 pipeline and Iran’s seizure of oil tankers. Many of these emails reveal a preoccupation with using tweets as a tool to convey foreign policy messages with little else mentioned in terms of engagement.

“I’m watching. Already tweeted about it ;)” Grenell responds when an aide informs him that Iran has seized oil tankers.

Evyenia Sidereas, political minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, responds: “My twitter alerts can’t keep up :),” which prompts Grenell to reply: “I’ve been a little busy today. Lol.”

The emphasis on Twitter is also seen after an aide in May 2019 brings to Grenell’s attention the Kenya high court has affirmed the country’s law against homosexuality. An aide (whose name the State Department redacted in the email) informs him then-U.S. Ambassador Kyle McCarter is set to have a meeting with staff “to discuss whether he’ll issue a statement” and the embassy in Nairobi had updated the State Department while awaiting further guidance.

“I’ll tweet about this one, too,” Grenell says. “Can you make a suggestion and I’ll tweet Hungary today. Kenya tomorrow.” (It’s unclear what the reference to Hungary was regarding.)

In terms of discussion at the U.S. embassy on the Kenya decision, whatever was considered apparently didn’t bear fruit. The Blade couldn’t immediately find any public statement on the Kenya decision from McCarter in his capacity as a U.S. ambassador during the Trump administration. McCarter didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment for this article.

In 2018, McCarter was grilled during his Senate confirmation hearing on his record as an Illinois state legislator who opposed LGBTQ rights, including his vote against an anti-bullying measure after stating he believed it would promote homosexuality. McCarter also had a history of misogynistic tweets and in 2016 tweeted: “Hillary for Prison. No, really.”

Much of the focus on the Trump administration’s global initiative appeared to be Iran, which has been an antagonist on the global stage and more so after Trump withdrew from the Iran deal. Iran is also one of the countries where homosexuality is not only criminalized, but punishable by death.

Although Grenell has publicly disputed Iran was the focus, he was quick to provide a quote to his assistant seeking a response from him after the country’s foreign minister affirmed its anti-gay policy in response to questions from a reporter with a German newspaper.

“The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that these answers from the Iranian regime are violating basic UN principles,” Grenell writes. “UN members should agree with the Declaration in order to be members. Criminalizing homosexuality violates the Declaration, plain and simple.”

Grenell’s response was later found online in an article in The Jerusalem Post, which covered reaction to the news in an article titled, “Iran’s FM affirms right to execute gays and blasts U.S. and Israel.”

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Biden puts his weight on changing Senate rules to pass voting rights

President says changes need to ‘protect our democracy’

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President Biden said he supports changing Senate rules to advance voting rights legislation. (Screen capture via C-SPAN)

President Biden, after paying tribute to civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by leaving a wreath on his grave, brought the strength of his presidency to bear in a speech Tuesday in an effort to reform U.S. Senate rules to enact voting rights legislation.

“I’m making it clear, to protect our democracy, I support changing Senate rules whichever way they need to changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking basic voting rights,” Biden said.

Biden has indicated before he supports changes to longstanding rules the Senate requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed with debate on legislation, but the speech marks an elevation of viewpoint in a more formal way and increases the pressure on fellow Democrats like Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who oppose such a change.

Based on his words, Biden’s position on filibuster reform appears limited to voting rights legislation, which like so much other legislation has passed in the House and has stalled out in the Senate. The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the White House seeking comment on why, if Biden supports changing the filibuster for voting rights, why hasn’t he made the case for other issues, such as police reform or LGBTQ civil rights.

A major reason cited by Biden to bring the force of his presidency down on this issue: The attack on U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 instigated by President Trump, who falsely claimed he won the 2020 election against Biden.

Biden conjured images of the long road in the civil rights journey in the United States and a “violet riot” at the Capitol that Biden said undermined the process.

The recently enacted voter law in Georgia, which makes mail-in voting illegal, limits hours and locations for ballot drop boxes and bars the delivery of food and water to persons waiting in line to vote, was another major focus for Biden, who pointed out Republican lawmakers in Georgia put it in place after he won the state in 2020 and Trump pressured officials there to find more votes for him.

As a result, Biden said the “threat to democracy is so grave” he supports changes to the filibuster, which came about in use in the Senate from senators seeking to block civili rights legislation.

“If that bare minimum is blocked, we have no choice but change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this,” Biden said.

Biden identified two bills in his speech: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which seeks to rectify a U.S. Supreme Court decision undermining the Voting Rights Act and the Freedom of the Vote Act, which would dramatically reform voting process, including the expansion of voting by mail and early voting.

Joining Biden in Atlanta in favor of changing rules to advance voting rights was Vice President Kamala Harris, who said “nowhere — nowhere — does the Constitution give a minority the right to unilaterally block legislation.”

“Over the past few years, we have seen so many anti-voter laws, that there is a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws, a danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal, a danger of becoming complacent, complicit,” Harris said. “Anti-voter laws are not new in our nation, but we must not be deceived into thinking they are normal.”

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