Senate's DADT repeal battle begins on Tuesday

This week could be either a turning point in efforts to repeal the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law or a dramatic late victory for conservatives opposed to openly gay individuals serving in the military. Both sides should have a better idea which way the momentum is headed starting Tuesday afternoon.

About 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, the Senate has scheduled a cloture vote on the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal language. Supporters need 60 votes to pass the cloture motion, which is used to limit the time of debate on a bill (thereby getting around any filibuster attempts by opponents).

Democratic leaders and gay rights advocates don’t know if they have the 60 votes necessary to limit debate. Supporters (including Lady Gaga) are holding a rally in Portland, Maine, this afternoon in an effort to persuade moderate Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to cross the aisle and vote for cloture.

If that move fails, then a vote on the legislation could be postponed until after the election, likely killing any chance at repeal this year.

If it succeeds, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already said he’ll limit debate on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” issue to a single vote in the larger defense debate. Republican opponents are expected to offer an amendment stripping the gay ban language out of the budget bill, but Democrats are confident that they have a wide enough margin of seats in the Senate to easily defeat that proposal.

Even after that vote, the defense bill will still have to be approved by the full chamber, not a given with some other controversial items also inserted in the measure. The Senate is also considering an amendment allowing abortions to be performed at overseas military bases, and inserting new immigration regulations into the measure. And the White House has promised to veto the measure if it includes about $500 million for an alternate Joint Strike Fighter engine, a program supported by many in the House and Senate.

If approved, the Senate-passed bill will head into a conference committee to be reconciled with the House’s version. Since both the Senate and House “don’t ask, don’t tell” language is identical, that portion of the negotiations isn’t expected to be controversial. Still, that reconciliation process will still take months, with a final version heading to the president in late November at the earliest. 


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