DADT repeal teeters on the mid-term elections

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen responds to questions during testimony with Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 2, 2010.  DOD photo by Cherie Cullen (released)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen responds to questions during testimony with Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 2, 2010. DOD photo by Cherie Cullen (released)

First of two parts (Part II)

Google “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and you’ll get more than 2 million links. Add the word “repeal” to the search, and you’ll get about half a million. Add the words “this year,” and you’re down to 135,000.

That’s probably a good illustration of how the actual repeal process is going these days: Lots of people are talking about it, but the chances for success this year rely on a lot more things converging just so, and not too much.

The plan on the table right now is two-pronged: first, some sort of intra-Pentagon relaxation of the enforcement of the current policy by, roughly, the end of this month. And then repeal of the policy at some point in the future.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) says that future point will likely be on the Fiscal Year 2011 Defense Authorization bill which, last year, got its final vote in October. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate Armed Services Committee last month that he sees Congress taking up the matter after the Pentagon does a study of the impact and how best to go about repealing the policy. He set December 1 as the report’s due date and, in a memo to the study group March 2, suggested the group might consider recommending “further study.”

In other words, repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) this year is teetering on the mid-term elections.

While there is clearly more support for repeal of the policy this year than in the past 17 years of its implementation, DADT is still a contentious issue. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen says it’s the “right thing to do,” his four Joint Chiefs say not now. The most recent national poll—by CNN February 12-15 of 1,023 adults—found 69 percent favor, 27 percent oppose, four percent were unsure. But that was a slip from 75 percent—in an ABC poll of 1,004 adults—the week before, just after Mullen’s remark was widely publicized. And Congress has deteriorated into a partisan combat zone and some Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee made clear they oppose repeal.

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is certainly have more opposition than did the hate crimes bill last year. The Senate needed 60 votes last summer to force the chamber to approve adding the hate crimes law to the Defense Authorization bill through unanimous consent; it got 63. Can the DADT repeal get 60?

Some things have changed. For one thing, Democrats lost one party vote last November to Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts. Brown has not publicly stated his position, and he told Barbara Walters he hasn’t made up his mind. But he described the issue as one of “social change,” not discrimination, and two Massachusetts groups—the anti-gay Massachusetts Family Institute and the pro-gay MassEquality—say he supports keeping “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Last year, the key Senate vote on hate crimes took place in July. But conventional wisdom in Washington is that legislators start running for re-election by the end of March and they often run to the political middle to ensure the widest base of support in the general election. That is not the direction that helps secure votes for DADT repeal in a Democratic majority Congress.

Democrats have a 77-seat advantage over Republicans in the House, and—if Independents usually vote with Democrats—an 18-seat advantage in the Senate. Trouble is, the Senate has become increasingly vulnerable to Republican filibuster. And since it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, Democrats are feeling impotent with 59. And that’s if the vote on repeal takes place before the mid-terms. If it takes place after the mid-terms, it’s unclear what the political climate will be. Eighteen Democratic seats and 18 Republican seats are up for vote in November.

Yet another factor in gauging DADT repeal’s chances for success this year is Secretary Gates. He’s the man who named the membership for the Pentagon’s DADT working group—the group charged with coming up with a report on how repeal would impact the military and how it could be implemented.

While many news reports casually mention that Gates supports President Obama’s desire to repeal DADT, this reporter could find no statement from Gates himself saying that. A check with Cynthia Smith, a spokeswoman for Gates, turned up none. Asked whether Gates had ever made a statement for or against repeal, Smith said she could “only refer to the Feb. 2 testimony” before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In that statement, Secretary Gates said: “We have received our orders from the commander in chief and we are moving out accordingly.”

Asked if there were any other statements, Smith said, “No other statement that I’m aware of.”

But Gates has made statements suggesting he’s not convinced Congress will pass a bill to repeal DADT.

In a little-publicized March 2 memo to the general counsel of the co-chair of his DADT working group, Gates repeatedly discusses repeal as something that might happen, not something he is charged with making happen.

“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Admiral Mike Mullen] and I owe the President an assessment of the implications of such a repeal, should it occur,” wrote Gates.

“Should Congress take this action,” wrote Gates, “strong, engaged and informed leadership will be required at every level to properly and effectively implement a legislative change.”

The memo came just one day before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the DOD’s “process for assessing the requirements to implement repeal” of the military’s policy of excluding openly gay service members.

Discussing the memo at a routine Pentagon press briefing on Wednesday, March 3, DOD spokesman Geoff Morrell said, “We have always been very explicit about the fact that it is the president’s desire to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and that desire is supported by the Secretary of Defense [and] by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

“The question for this [working group] panel,” said Morrell, “is don’t consider whether it’s a good thing or not. Don’t consider if this were to … happen. Go about this from the perspective of, this is the president’s desire; it is likely to happen. We need…to be prepared for that eventuality. We need to know more than we know now about what the potential impact would be. And we need to be armed with that information, so that we could work with the Congress to help inform the process that they undertake, if they undertake it.”

Next week: The Gates Report – is it a study or a stall?

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