WASHINGTON — Senate leaders will put the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal plan up for a vote next week in what could be the final major legislative hurdle in allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military.
But opponents could still attempt a filibuster to block debate on the measure, and gay rights groups are scrambling to shore up support among uncommitted senators before the vote.
The repeal language — included within the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill — would set a timeline to abolish the military’s 17-year-old ban on gay troops openly proclaiming their sexual orientation. Under the plan the ban could be lifted as early as next February, after the president and defense secretary certify that the military is prepared for the change.
The House approved the budget bill with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal language by a 234-194 vote in May, over objections from Republicans and conservative Democrats. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been a vocal opponent of the change, and has promised to try and block any bill including a repeal.
But supporters of the repeal, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, have been urging Senate leaders to put the military funding measure up for a vote before the November elections.
Several gay rights groups, including the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, have worried that expected Republican victories in the election would end any chance at repeal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he won’t try to pass any controversial legislation in the Senate’s lame-duck session in December.
“Now, we must deliver,” Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said in a statement. “If the defense budget bill doesn’t move to the Senate floor by the end of September, repeal may not happen for several more years.”
If the Senate approves the bill with identical repeal language as the House, lawmakers are expected to include it in their final compromise bill. But even then the legislation could face an unexpected foe: President Barack Obama, who made abolishing “don’t ask, don’t tell” a campaign promise in 2008.
The White House supports the repeal language but has threatened to veto the defense authorization bill over other “wasteful” spending, including continued funding of the Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine program.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June told lawmakers that Obama would not accept “unneeded programs simply because the authorization or appropriations legislation includes other provisions important to him and to this administration.”
The House included nearly $500 million in their version of the budget bill for the alternate engine program, and Senate lawmakers have expressed support for the program as well.