- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2010

Republicans effectively ended the Democrats’ last chance to overturn the military’s ban on gay troops Thursday in a procedural vote that likely puts the issue beyond Congress‘ reach for the foreseeable future.

The 57-40 tally left Democrats three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster and begin debate on the defense policy bill. Instead, the Senate won’t pass a defense bill for the first time in decades — which Democrats said jeopardizes troops’ pay raises, as well as leaving the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place.

Democrats were racing to act before the end of the year, when the GOP — which is generally opposed to overturning the policy — takes control of the House and ends the chances for action.

The vote was along party lines except for two switchers — moderate Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who supported the measure, and Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, who voted no.

President Obama said he was “extremely disappointed” with the Senate’s action and urged senators to revisit the issue before its late year “lame duck” session ends.

“As commander in chief, I have pledged to repeal this discriminatory law, ” the president said. “A great majority of the American people agree. This law weakens our national security, diminishes our military readiness and violates fundamental American principles of fairness, integrity and equality.

Senators pushing to change the law say there is a chance to try again in the remaining days of the lame-duck session by introducing a stand-alone bill.

“I am 100 percent supportive of the stand-alone bill,” said Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

But with the year winding down and with the Senate still facing several other key votes, including the proposed extension of Bush-era tax cuts, such an scenario appears a long shot. Another shot at repeal could be achieved only if Congress stays in session beyond its self-imposed Dec. 17 adjournment.

More likely is that the fight moves to the courts, where a federal judge has already struck down the policy, though his ruling has been stayed while the matter is under appeal.

“This issue is one that we are going to have to deal with sooner or later,” Ms. Collins said. “The courts are ruling in a way that appears evident that this issue … is eventually going to get to the Supreme Court.”

Gay-rights advocates said they are continuing to press for action this year, but they also said they will pressure Mr. Obama to use executive powers to stop the dismissal of gay troops.

“Since it appears Congress won’t repeal the law this year, the fate of lesbian and gay service members now rests in President Obama’s hands,” Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a letter to supporters Thursday.

“To make good on his commitment to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in 2010, President Obama needs to immediately issue a stop-loss order halting military discharges. At the same time, the administration must immediately cease defending DADT in federal court.”

Mr. Levin defended the timing of Thursday’s vote, saying that Republicans had months to work with Democrats on a deal and that Mr. Reid was forced to act now because the 2010 legislation calendar was winding down.

“There simply was no time to complete a bill including repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ if we didn’t start work now,” Mr. Levin said.

Ms. Collins, the lone Republican to vote against the filibuster, was incensed at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for “prematurely” calling the vote before a deal on GOP amendments could be worked out.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Senate majority leader walked away from negotiations in which we were engaged and which were going well,” she told reporters minutes after the vote. “I’m perplexed and frustrated.”

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, another moderate Maine Republican who occasionally votes with Democrats, said she opposed the measure on the grounds that Democrats rejected GOP amendments to the bill.

“In denying our ability to offer any amendments to this critical authorization bill … the majority has continued to engage in the same, status quo politics that the voters overwhelmingly and resoundingly rejected at the polls just one month ago,” Mrs. Snowe said.

Even as senators were voting, Ms. Collins, Mr. Levin and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who had been working to win Ms. Collins‘ support, huddled at a desk on the Senate floor, trying to come up with a strategy to go forward.

She ended up voting with Democrats, and then turned her attention to trying to persuade fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to join her. Mrs. Murkowski remained a no vote, though Mr. Lieberman said she could be a possible target if they introduce a stand-alone bill, along with Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican.

Three senators were absent for Thursday’s vote: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and John Cornyn of Texas.

Mrs. Lincoln apologized on the Senate floor for missing the vote. Mr. Lieberman said later the Arkansas Democrat had a dental appointment that ran late.

Mr. Manchin, who only joined the Senate last month, said the policy “probably should be repealed in the near future.” But he justified his no vote by saying that he hasn’t had time to “hear the full range of viewpoints from the citizens of West Virginia.”

“I truly understand that my position will anger those who believe repeal should happen now and for that I sincerely apologize,” he said.

A Pentagon survey of military personnel released this month showed that most troops wouldn’t mind serving alongside gays. The study found that 70 percent of troops surveyed believed that repealing the law would have mixed, positive or no effect, while 30 percent predicted negative consequences.

The survey showed opposition strongest among combat troops, with at least 40 percent saying it was a bad idea. That number climbs to 58 percent among Marines serving in combat roles.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have pushed strongly for Congress to repeal the policy, saying that asking service members to lie about themselves went against the integrity of the armed forces.

And 17 years after he led the fight in Congress against gays in the military, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn said he thinks gays could serve openly without damaging the armed forces’ ability to fight.

The former lawmaker from Georgia, in an interview this week with the Associated Press, said the policy he reluctantly embraced in 1993 as a compromise deal with President Clinton could be overturned as long as there is enough time to prepare the troops for the change.

 

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.