September 15, 2017 at 4:37 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
McCain co-sponsors new bill against Trump’s trans military ban
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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is among the bipartisan co-sponsors of a bill for transgender military service. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A new standalone bill that seeks to undermine President Trump’s ban on transgender military service has key support from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who years ago was a chief opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

In a statement upon the bill’s introduction, McCain declared his support for transgender military service and said he awaits feedback on the issue from Defense Secretary James Mattis, who set forth a plan for a study on transgender service after Trump’s order.

“When less than one percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country,” McCain said. “Any member of the military who meets the medical and readiness standards should be allowed to serve—including those who are transgender. The Senate Armed Services Committee will review the results of the DOD study on accession and will continue to work closely with our military leaders on any policy changes as we conduct oversight on this important issue.”

McCain’s support for the legislation is striking because in 2010, the Arizona Republican was the biggest opponent in the Senate of repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that prohibited openly gay people from serving in the U.S. armed forces.

As the Pentagon was reviewing the possibility at the time of allowing openly gay people to serve, McCain complained the study was off-base and should have asked service members if they want the change. On the day the Senate voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” McCain said on the Senate floor the occasion was a “sad day.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the standalone measure Thursday, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold a vote on her amendment against Trump’s ban as part of the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization bill.

“Despite being denied a vote on my bipartisan amendment to defend our transgender service members, we are not giving up in this fight,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Thousands of brave transgender Americans love our country enough to risk their lives for it, fight for it, and even die for it, and Congress should honor them and let them serve. Doing otherwise would only harm our readiness at a time when our military is deployed around the world in defense of our country.”

The new bill, S.1820, has bipartisan support right off the bat. Among the co-sponsors other than McCain are Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Collins, the other Republican who’s an original co-sponsor of the legislation, was in contrast to McCain a strong proponent of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010.

“Our armed forces should welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country,” Collin said. “If individuals are willing to put on the uniform of our country, be deployed in war zones, and risk their lives for our freedoms, then we should be expressing our gratitude to them, not trying to kick them out of the military.”

Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump for banning transgender military service, which the president recently ordered the Pentagon to carry out after a previous ban was lifted during the Obama administration.

“The president has manufactured a crisis for political reasons, one that is discriminatory and deeply harmful to those currently serving,” Reed said. “Transgender service members deployed today are serving with honor and distinction. The last thing they need while serving in a combat zone is to worry about being involuntarily separated. Congress needs to act on a bipartisan basis to do what is best for our country and national security, and that includes overturning President Trump’s poorly conceived transgender ban.”

Sources familiar with the legislation say it’s identical to the amendment Gillibrand proposed as part of the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization.

The measure has three parts. It expresses the sense of Congress that qualified individuals should be able to serve in the armed forces; prohibits the military from discharging service members solely for being transgender; and codifies the review Mattis established in June to determine whether openly transgender people can enlist in the armed forces. The measure also calls for a report to Congress on that study by Feb. 21.

But the legislation doesn’t direct the Pentagon to allow the enlistment of openly transgender people, nor does it lift the portion of Trump’s ban calling for U.S. military payment of gender reassignment surgery.

The absence of the language makes the bill more likely to obtain support from Republican senators who objected to Trump’s ban, but didn’t outright support transgender military service or transition-related health care. (However, the Trump administration opposed the amendment, which means Trump is likely to veto the standalone measure should it ever reach his desk.)

Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, called the bipartisan nature of the legislation “remarkable.”

“Bipartisan support for the troops stands in sharp contrast to GOP leadership, which yesterday declined to allow Congress to halt President Trump’s transgender ban,” Belkin said. “Today’s stand-alone bill gives Congress another chance to protect the military’s proud record in which service members, once welcomed and deemed fit to serve, are not cast aside for political reasons.”

It’s difficult to see a path forward for standalone legislation if McConnell wouldn’t allow a vote on the Gillibrand amendment. Just like the amendment, the bill would require either unanimous consent or Senate leadership filing cloture on the measure to move forward.

Nonetheless, Gillibrand during a radio interview Friday on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show said she sees a path forward for the legislation based on the history of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“An amendment was relevant because we are on the national defense bill right now but interestingly, it’s what we had to do with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal,” Gillibrand said. “When I was working on that issue, we continued to not be able to get a vote as an amendment to the NDAA so at the end of the day, we took it out and made it a standalone bill and it was, I think, one of the last votes of the session and it was just an up or down vote: Are you for it or against it and we got the 60 votes.”

Also during the interview, Gillibrand said having support from McCain was crucial because of his status as Senate Armed Services Committee chair.

“What Sen. McCain did last night is agree that he will be on a stand-alone bill, which sends a huge message,” Gillibrand said. “I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to have the Chairman of the Armed Service’s Committee, a Republican, who clearly is devoted and loves the troops, to stand with me and Susan Collins to say this is wrong, you cannot be kicked out if you’re transgender, and that you cannot be discriminated against based on your gender-identity. It’s huge.”

Commending senators for introducing the legislation was Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign.

“Since Donald Trump announced his cruel and discriminatory ban on transgender service members, a bipartisan chorus of Americans and members of Congress have made loud and clear that our nation must protect transgender troops,” McBride said. “Every qualified person willing to serve our country should be allowed to do so — and be able to focus on the mission, not face attacks from their own commander-in-chief. We thank Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Susan Collins, John McCain and Jack Reed for introduction of this bill and their leadership in defending transgender service members.”

(Karen Ocamb contributed to this report.)

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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