Lame-duck session may be last chance for ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ repeal

WASHINGTON–At first glance, the stars seem to be aligned for proponents of repealing the 17-year-old ban on gays serving openly in the military.

The Senate’s Democratic leader has promised to bring it up for another vote when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving break. Sen. Joseph Lieberman says he’s got the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster.

And the Pentagon is preparing to release a long-awaited study, which reportedly shows that a majority of enlisted service members do not foresee problems with lifting the prohibition.

“It’s the right thing to do for our military, so we’re not deprived of literally thousands” of qualified service members who would otherwise be barred because of their sexual orientation, said Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who has led the push for repeal. “We still have a chance.”

But it’s probably the last chance, at least for the next several years, as Republican opponents are poised to gain strength in the next Congress. And Lieberman’s optimism notwithstanding, there are still many obstacles in the path of this legislation.

“The odds are against it, but it is possible,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

The first and biggest hurdle is time.

The language repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as the Pentagon’s ban on homosexuals serving openly is known, is included in a broad defense bill. The Senate typically takes a couple of weeks to debate and amend that annual authorization bill.

And even before the full Senate can start that debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee is planning to hold hearings next week on the Pentagon report examining the implications of a don’t ask, don’t tell repeal. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that more than 70 percent of the soldiers responding to the Pentagon’s survey said their response to lifting the ban would be positive, mixed or neutral.

On Sunday, the Defense Department announced that it would release the full report one day ahead of schedule–on Nov. 30 instead of Dec. 1–giving repeal supporters new momentum.

But the Senate hearings are likely to produce political fireworks. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on that committee, has already signaled that he’s unhappy with the study and remains staunchly opposed to moving ahead with repeal.

“This study was directed at how to implement the repeal, not whether the repeal should take place,” McCain said in a recent appearance on Meet the Press. “I want a thorough and complete study of the effect on morale and battle effectiveness of the United States military.”

McCain noted that Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, recently said ending the ban would be problematic, particularly while the U.S. is involved in two conflicts overseas.

“The commandant of the Marine Corps he is saying this could hurt our ability to win,” McCain said “I’m paying attention to the commandant.”

McCain successfully led a GOP filibuster of the defense authorization bill before Congress broke for the November elections. But Lieberman and others say the climate is different now.

Lieberman said he’s gotten assurances from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and other Republican moderates that as long as there is a “fair and reasonable amendment process,” they will break GOP ranks on the filibuster and allow the bill to move forward.

“We’ve appealed to Senator [Harry] Reid to allow such a fair amendment process,” Lieberman said, referring to the Senate majority leader. “I think we can get over and will get over 60.”

If it does pass the Senate, the defense authorization bill would still have to be reconciled with a different version passed by the House. The language on don’t ask, don’t tell is exactly the same in both chambers, so the negotiations would focus on other issues.

“Certainly, there are a lot of factors like time and getting the votes together that remain challenges,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights advocacy group. “But I think we can get it over the finish line.”

If not, it will be the first time in nearly five decades that Congress has failed to pass the defense authorization bill. And when lawmakers reconvene for the next Congress and Republicans take control of the House, a repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell will almost certainly be off the table.