October 16, 2019 at 11:26 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Senate Dems buckle on trans service in defense talks: source
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), second from right, joins transgender service members in the Capitol Rotunda before the State of the Union Address on Feb. 5, 2019. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In a rare display of intraparty fighting over LGBT rights, a senior Democratic aide is accusing Senate Democrats of buckling in efforts to overturn the transgender military ban as part of closed-door negotiations for major defense spending legislation.

Amid negotiations for the fiscal year 2020 defense authorization bill, the senior Democratic aide late Tuesday faulted Senate Democrats for failing to push for inclusion of the “Harry Truman” amendment introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and approved by the U.S. House as part of the legislation.

“There is deep concern that Senate Democrats led by Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, are not fighting hard enough to retain the reversal of Trump’s transgender military service ban in the final NDAA conference report,” the aide said. “Ten House Republicans joined with House Democrats to pass the Speier amendment. We hope Senate Democrats will reverse course and make this a top priority in the negotiations.”

The “Harry Truman” amendment, named for the executive order President Truman signed in 1948 to desegregate the military, would reverse the transgender military ban the Defense Department implemented in April as a result of direction from President Trump.

The measure would not only restore transgender military service, but prohibit the U.S. armed forces from discriminating against LGBT service members.

The amendment states the military must consider applicants based on gender-neutral occupational standards and military occupational specialty, but “may not include any criteria relating to the race, color, national origin, religion, or sex (including gender identity or sexual orientation) of an individual.”

Further, the amendment states any Defense Department personnel policy for members of the armed forces “shall ensure equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces, without regard to race, color, national origin, religion, and sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation).”

The House approved the amendment in July as part of the defense authorization bill by a bipartisan 242-187 vote. The Senate version contains no similar language. Conferees charged with hammering out a final conference report for the defense authorization bill with have to make a decision on the legislation.

Chip Unruh, a Reed spokesperson, disputed the notion of Senate Democrats buckling on the measure, calling the source “inaccurate.”

“Sen. Reed’s history of supporting LGBTQ troops goes back to his vote against President Clinton’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” Unruh said.

Keeping the language in the final version of the bill will be challenging. Although the Democratic-controlled House agreed to the measure, it would have to make it through a Republican-controlled Senate and avoid President Trump’s veto when the larger bill reached his desk — a tall order to fill given Trump will likely seek to defend the ban he instituted.

The “Harry Truman” amendment was one of three LGBT-related amendments the House included in its version of the defense bill.

Another is an amendment introduced by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) seeking a report from the Defense Department on waivers granted under the transgender ban. The third is an amendment from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) seeking to ensure service members expelled under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have honorable discharges in their records.

It’s unclear when conferees will finish negotiations on the defense bill. Conferees began negotiations late last month and the final conference report is expected when all final signatures are compiled.

Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, said inclusion of the Speier amendment in the conference report was essential.

“Military leaders have explained time and again that discipline and good order depend on having one set of standards that applies equally to all service members,” Belkin said. “Given the Trump administration’s reinstatement of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for transgender troops, a statutory solution is the quickest path for restoring inclusive policy. Inclusive policy succeeded for nearly three years because it held transgender troops to the same standards as all other service members.”

Andy Blevins, a Navy veteran and executive director of the Modern Military Association of American, urged Senate Democrats to stand firm on the Speier amendment.

“It’s absolutely crucial that Sen. Jack Reed and pro-equality senators stand their ground and demand this bipartisan amendment is included in the final NDAA conference report,” Blevins said. “Caving to pressure to exclude this amendment, which overturns the unconscionable transgender military ban, is both unacceptable and unjustifiable. These senators have pledged their support to our nation’s transgender servicemembers and qualified patriots who want to serve, and they must deliver on that promise.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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