DADT in GOP Hands



Reality is settling in, and many advocates for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” have begun to acknowledge that passing the National Defense Authorization Act in the lame-duck session after the midterm election is unlikely at best and could ultimately rest in the hands of Republicans.

A nearly insurmountable series of negatives seem to be stacking up: The White House is not engaged, time is running terribly short, Republicans are winning the political battle on the legislation, the midterms only stand to weaken Senate Democrats, and many fear the release of the Pentagon’s study of repeal in early December could deal a final blow to the effort.

“When you actually look at how much time Congress has to be here in lame-duck and the appetite to get difficult bills done, it will be very difficult to move the defense authorization bill,” said Winnie Stachelberg, who is vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress and has worked on the repeal effort.

Stachelberg tempered her comments with glimmers of hope, pointing out recent remarks from White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, who last week spoke to a group of students at the University of Montana about DADT and said, “We’re going to get that done this year.”

Still, she added, “when you throw in the fact that Secretary [Robert] Gates continues to say the legislation should come after the Pentagon’s working group study, which is due December 1, it’s an unbelievably narrow needle to thread with many competing legislative priorities.”

White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the administration stood by Messina’s declaration and forwarded White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’s comments last week that “the President, along with his Administration, will continue to work with the Senate Leadership to achieve a legislative repeal of DADT as outlined in the NDAA this fall.”

But some Capitol Hill staffers are not optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

“I am exceptionally worried about the legislative route,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The closer we get to the December 1 date, the more perilous it becomes.”

The aide was also not convinced that statements from the White House press office would translate into any real political pressure on the Hill — not the kind that was applied during the effort to pass the stimulus bill last year, for instance, when White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel camped out for nearly two weeks on Capitol Hill.

“We were really looking for the president or the very senior members of the administration to be calling people regularly to push this, but the White House is not stepping up to the plate in any meaningful way on this. We had 59 members, we have 70% of the American people, and the Republicans were still able to seize the narrative on this,” the aide said of Democrats’ failure to reach cloture and advance the bill last week. “Now, how is that going to get better in the slightest after the midterms?”

The dire state of the legislative effort is reflected by the fact that members of Congress in both chambers are now circulating a letter urging President Barack Obama not to appeal a recent decision that ruled “don’t ask, don’t tell” unconstitutional. Last week Rep. Jared Polis released a letter that had 69 House signatories, and a similar Senate letter originating from senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Mark Udall now claims 11 members and counting, according to those familiar with the effort.

“These are members that don’t often go on record talking about a court case,” said the aide, noting the unusual nature of the circumstances. “Most members are loath to do that because they don’t want get involved in a court case.”

Senate Republicans have lobbied aggressively against proceeding on the bill — legislation that conservatives usually push for since it funds the Department of Defense. If lieu of passing the defense authorization bill, Congress could pass a continuing resolution (CR) that would provide supplemental cash flow until next year’s Congress can rewrite the legislation. But even a CR cannot address the full range of projects and funding needs of the Pentagon.

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