Reid promises vote on 'don't ask, don't tell' in lame-duck session
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday promised he will call for a vote on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law when the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving break, in a last-minute effort to repeal the law by the end of the year.
Advocates for the repeal believe they’ll have the votes to pass it when the time comes. But conservative Republicans in the chamber are still vowing to block that effort, and Democratic leaders have not locked down any votes from Republicans, which would ensure passage of the measure.
Lawmakers this summer appeared on the verge of repealing the 18-year-old law, which bans gays from serving openly in the military, after the House passed language in its version of the defense authorization bill. But Senate Republicans have so far blocked that bill from reaching the floor.
On Thursday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told reporters that he believes at least two Republicans will side with repeal advocates when the issue is brought back up for a vote — but with conditions.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Dick Lugar of Indiana have pledged to him in private that they’ll vote to allow debate to continue on the defense authorization bill, which includes the repeal measure, “so long as there is a fair and open amendment process,” he said.
That’s the same issue which stalled the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal before.
Republicans, voting in unison in September, kept the measure sidelined over concerns that they would not be given sufficient voice in the length and content of the floor debate on the defense bill.
The Senate, which at the time had 59 members in the Democratic caucus, needs 60 votes to invoke cloture and avoid a filibuster attempt on the bill. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., will be replaced by incoming Republican Mark Kirk in coming weeks, meaning Democrats will have to convince two Republicans to cross the aisle to avoid a filibuster this time.
Once debate is finished, passing the bill would require only 50 votes, a figure well within reach.
Lieberman said he’s confident they can do that.
“We’re just before Thanksgiving, we’ve been told we’ll be [in session] for at least three more weeks,” he said. “It’s just a question of how hard we’re prepared to work.”
Earlier this week, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president supports the Senate passing the repeal language, which would dump the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law early next year.
But the president has not ordered the Pentagon to release its yearlong report on the law and the effects of a repeal to the Senate before the Dec. 1 due date, despite calls from several lawmakers to do so.
On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised to hold hearings on the report as soon as it is released, and pressed Army Gen. Carter Ham, co-chair of the working group writing the report, to deliver it as quickly as possible.
Ham said his group would likely need until Dec. 1 to finish its work, and later in the day Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Congress would not receive the report before Dec. 1.
Originally, the Pentagon planned for the review to be vetted by the service chiefs of each branch of the armed forces following the Dec. 1 deadline, but Morrell said that the process will be expedited.
“We have compressed that timeline such that we are now operating on parallel tracks,” Morrell said.
He added that the Defense Department was focused on completing its report, but beyond that he said he would not “tell the Senate how to do its business,” nor would he comment on the chances of repeal.
News reports said a draft of the 370-page assessment has found that the ban could be lifted with little harm to troops’ missions and morale, but that some servicemembers would be uncomfortable with the change.
The lead critic of the repeal effort, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called that report flawed because the researchers were asked to study the possible effect of a repeal, not whether one should take place.
As ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain has been lobbying Levin to strip the “don’t ask, don’t tell” language from the defense bill to ensure its passage by the end of the year.
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this report from Arlington, Va.