"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" repeal falls short in U.S. Senate

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Tuesday September 21, 2010

The U.S. Senate voted 56-43 on Tuesday, Sept. 21, against a measure that would have allowed debate on the repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to begin.

The mostly partisan vote dealt a major blow to gay rights groups who saw the legislation as their best hope, at least in the short term, for repeal of the 17-year-old law known as "don't ask, don't tell."

If Democrats lose seats in the upcoming congressional elections this fall, as many expect, repealing the ban could prove even more difficult - if not impossible - next year. With that scenario looming, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that a lame-duck session was being planned and that lifting the ban would be taken up then.

The episode upset advocates who believe that neither President Barack Obama nor Reid did enough to see the measure through.

"The whole thing is a political train wreck," said Richard Socarides, a White House adviser on gay rights during the Clinton administration.

Democrats included the repeal provision in a $726 billion defense policy bill, which authorizes a pay raise for the troops among other popular programs. In a deal brokered with the White House, the measure would have overturned the 1993 law banning openly gay service only after a Pentagon review and certification from the president that lifting the ban wouldn't hurt troop morale.

LGBT advocates had hoped to gain 60 votes to block a filibuster to bring the repeal up for debate on the Senate floor, but Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain successfully thwarted these efforts.

"The Senate should not be forced to make this decision now before we hear the views of our troops," he said before the vote.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who was widely seen as the crucial 60th vote, announced shortly before the vote she would not support advancing the bill because Democrats wouldn't allow Republicans to offer amendments.

"I support provisions of this bill; I think it's the right thing to do; I think it's only fair," said Collins. "We should welcome the service of those individuals who are willing and capable to serve. I cannot vote for this bill under the situation that it is going to shut down this debate and preclude Republican debate."

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand criticized the vote.

"For nearly two decades, we've discharged thousands of America's best, brightest and bravest on immoral and unconstitutional grounds," she said. "The military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy undermines the integrity of our military, hurts our national security, and contradicts the moral foundation upon which this country was founded."

Gay rights advocates maintained today's vote provided a crucial opportunity to repeal the law.

"Today's Senate vote was a frustrating blow to repeal this horrible law," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "We lost because of the political maneuvering dictated by the mid-term elections."

Both McCain and Collins criticized Democrats for making the repeal of DADT as an election issue, but Connecticut Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman described the policy as "not consistent with American values of equal opportunity." And Lady Gaga was among those who spearheaded efforts to repeal DADT in the weeks leading up to today's vote.

"Once again, politicians are playing politics with people's lives," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. "Filibustering the defense authorization bill to block action on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal and the DREAM Act - two measures that do justice to the fundamental principle of fairness - is a disappointment and disservice to our country."

More than 13,000 soldiers have been discharged under DADT since it became law in 1993. President Obama; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. David Petraeus; former President Clinton are among those who have come out in support of a repeal of DADT.

Earlier this month a federal judge in Los Angeles declared the ban an unconstitutional violation of the due process and free speech rights of gays and lesbians. The decision was the third federal court ruling since July to assert that statutory limits on the rights of gays and lesbians were unconstitutional.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.