View From the Hill

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com May 08 2009 12:00 AM ET

If there was ever a sign that the culture was more ready to advance on LGBT issues than Washington's politicians, it was the virtual deluge of coverage from nearly every corner of mainstream media this week.

The cascade was dizzying: The New York Times , The Washington Post , CNN, MSNBC, Politico, The Hill . Meanwhile, back at the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked one question about whether the president had a reaction to Maine legalizing same-sex marriage and he nearly ducked behind his podium.

"No, I think the president's position on same-sex marriages has been talked about and discussed," he replied curtly, seemingly hoping to move away from the topic as quickly as possible.

As Democratic analyst Paul Begala noted during Thursday's CNN segment on LGBT issues, "The gay rights movement and marriage equality is advancing very nicely, thank you very much, without Barack Obama's help." Begala also predicted that the president would eventually come around to supporting marriage equality, but not any time soon.

Any change of heart, of course, is more likely to happen after the movement and the majority of the country has settled the issue -- likely in President Obama's second term, assuming there is one. While I'm not hopeful for any imminent profile in courage on marriage, what does seem advisable, as argued by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, is that the White House drop the whole it's-a-matter-for-the-states shtick.

"What the president shouldn't do is stay away from the marriage debate on the grounds that it's not a matter for the federal government. For one thing, he's on record as favoring repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- a law that blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriages and relieved states of any obligation to recognize out-of-state gay marriages," Robinson wrote.

In fact, as more states legalize marriage, it becomes ever more imperative that the federal government is able to recognize those unions for the purposes of issues like equal tax treatment and Social Security survivor benefits among many others. Even if the states are deciding individually how to handle marriage, the federal government increasingly has an obligation to right the financial inequities DOMA levels at same-sex partners. And if the White House doesn't want to do it publicly, why not simply give a behind-the-scenes green light for legislation on partial repeal of DOMA to be introduced so lobbyists can get to work on building support?

Even as popular opinion is quickly changing on marriage equality -- a recent ABC News- Washington Post poll found for the first time that more people support it than oppose it -- one issue the public has agreed on for almost a decade is that men and women should be allowed to serve openly in the military irrespective of their sexual orientation.

As Rachel Maddow and Huffington Post documented, President Obama is now in the business of firing Arabic linguists. In the opinion of Republican strategist Mary Matalin on CNN, repealing the military's gay ban "is a better fight than gay marriage -- ["don't ask, don't tell"] strikes people as imminently unfair and stupid relative to the security needs that we have."

It's also a fight that the president has been notably silent on and, in fact, the momentum seems to have slowed since he took office. While a repeal bill has been introduced in the House, no bill has emerged in the Senate even after Sen. Edward Kennedy was reportedly preparing to introduce one several months ago.

Admiral Mike Mullen went from acknowledging last December, "The president-elect's been pretty clear that he wants to address this issue," to saying in April, "I haven't gotten any direction to specifically go to study it and come back with a recommendation."

A New York Times article about mounting pressure on LGBT issues noted that Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese along with other LGBT group leaders met with White House officials this week to strategize on hate crimes and "don't ask, don't tell."

"They have a vision," Solmonese told the Times . "They have a plan."

In a follow-up phone call with me, Solmonese declined to discuss the details of the meeting but, regarding the military's gay ban, he noted that "a lot more work" needed to be done beyond simply introducing a bill.

"The administration is probably working through a lot of different options right now, and we're interested to see what is the most expeditious and sustainable one," he said, "What will be the strategy and the vehicle and the timeline to getting it done?"

Solmonese also suggested that timeline might be less than immediate.

"They could be working on a 'don't ask, don't tell' strategy that would take 18 months," he said. "I trust that this is something that's being worked on and they're looking at something more comprehensive and long-term than just putting out a statement [of support]."

Granted, Solmonese was speaking theoretically, but 18 months from now would take us into November of 2010, so perhaps repeal would then be pushed past the midterms. The problem with that, of course, is that once you get to 2011, President Obama's team would begin to worry about 2012.

Though I'm not prone to hyperbole, I can't help recalling Maureen Dowd's recent column quoting Gavin Newsom's reflections on San Francisco marriages: "If we didn't do it in 2004, do you think the party would have wanted us to do it in 2006 during the midterm elections to take back Congress? God forbid. 2008? Well, it's another presidential year. And now people are saying 2010? That's another critical year to hold Congress, and we've got statehouses across the nation. 2012? Another presidential year. 2014? Another congressional year."

Our next chance to examine the Obama administration's mind-set on repeal will likely be next Wednesday, when Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen testify in front of the House Armed Services Committee on the Defense Department's 2010 budget. Activists expect that leaders on both sides of the aisle will ask about the administration's intentions regarding "don't ask, don't tell." Gates and Mullen will surely be prepped, but whether they will be "fired up and ready to go" on repeal remains to be seen.