Collins, Lieberman prove formidable team

‘Don’t ask’ repeal partnership exemplifies cross-aisle alliance

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The repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy owes much to Sens. Susan Collins and Joseph I. Lieberman, who kept the issue alive when it appeared dead in the kind of partnership that is likely to become a model for getting things done in next year’s divided Congress.

Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut, and Miss Collins, a Republican from Maine, plan to join President Obama at the White House on Wednesday when he signs the bill into law. The signing ceremony caps off a late-season effort that saw the military’s ban on openly gay men and women serving in the ranks sink on two attempts as part of the annual defense policy bill, before finally passing as a stand-alone bill in the dying days of the lame-duck session.

Saturday’s 65-31 repeal vote came after the two senators, in the span of 10 days, convinced lawmakers that now was the time to scrap the 17-year-old policy and persuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to carve out floor time for one more try before the clock ran out.

“It wouldn’t have happened without them,” said Fred Sainz, a vice president at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group. “They had the courage and tenacity to introduce a stand-alone bill and then expertly managed it to conclusion. They deserve the credit.”

Philosophically speaking, the New England tag team is well-positioned to work together on legislative issues and to push back against party leaders trying to enforce discipline. Mr. Lieberman, while technically an independent, caucuses with Democrats, and Miss Collins is considered one of the more moderate-minded members of the Republican caucus.

As the chairman and top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the two lawmakers have wrestled with some of the biggest issues facing the nation in recent years - and have not been shy about irking their own party leaders along the way.

Their “don’t ask, don’t tell” fight left conservatives nonplussed, but the two have also joined together to challenge Mr. Obama’s use of unconfirmed policy “czars” to coordinate White House policy and strategy.

And together Mr. Lieberman and Miss Collins used their Senate panel to launchan investigation into the shooting last year at Fort Hood military base in Texas and into the foiled Christmas Day attack on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit. They alsopushed a sweeping cybersecurity bill and teamed up on 2004 intelligence reform law, which created a new director of national intelligence to oversee and coordinate the work of the various federal intelligence agencies.

“As someone who has worked in the area of homeland security over the years, they are my go-to people. You can intercept either one and you know it will get to the other,” said Rep. Jane Harman, the California Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security’s intelligence subcommittee. “It was really interesting to work with both of their staffs because you could see the kind of seamless coordination there, and it is enormously rare for something like this to happen at a professional level.”

“It gives one hope, at a kind of testing point in how Congress works, that some of the great friendships of past years - you know the Tip O’Neill-Ronald Reagan friendship and things of that nature - can still exist,” she said.

She added, “This little dance they’ve just done on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is fascinating. Both of them really took some risks to introduce a stand-alone bill.”

Asked about her relationship with Mr. Lieberman, Miss Collins acknowledged that their cross-aisle partnership is “unusual” on Capitol Hill, where bipartisanship is not in vogue.

“The trust we have allows us to accomplish way more than we otherwise would because each of us knows that the other is going to try to work in a constructive way,” she told The Washington Times. “Many people thought [‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal] was an impossible task, and we just kept trying to figure out how we could accomplish it because we felt so strongly that is was the right thing to do.”

“When it appeared many, many times that we just couldn’t get it done, we kept looking for another way.”

The effort earned them praise from Jarrod Chlapowski of Servicemembers United, the nation’s largest organization of gay troops and veterans, who said the military policy fight underscored the power the two senators can wield working together.

“They work great as a team,” Mr. Chlapowski said. “I think it is very well known that they have a very good professional relationship working together in the Senate and it was demonstrated in the way they were able to get the stand-alone bill on the floor so quickly after the [defense bill] failed and push that forward to victory this year.”

And even Mr. Obama, who is now positioned to fulfill his campaign pledge to end the controversial policy, singled out the two senators for special mention in his statement after passage over the weekend.

There are some who are less enthusiastic about the partnership.

“I think Susan Collins is representing probably what she thinks the people of Maine want, but I’m not sure it’s something that Maine Republicans want,” said Charlie Webster, Maine GOP chairman.

Still, Miss Collins is confident that she and Mr. Lieberman are on the right side of history.

“I believe that society has changed so much since this was first implemented 17 years ago, and I think it’s important to remind people that it was [President Clinton] who signed it into law, which I also think shows you that times have changed.”

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