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View From Washington Mullens Moment


This week Adm. Mike Mullen shouldered a burden and created an opening for the fair treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans that, quite frankly, no other leader in the country could possibly have delivered in three short sentences.

Staring down Sen. John McCain, who moments earlier had reiterated his unwavering belief that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is working, Mullen unflinchingly stated the opposite, saying he believed ending the policy was "the right thing to do."

"No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "For me personally it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."

If you would like to relive the glory of that moment before following me down the rabbit hole of the rest of this column, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank skillfully recounted the tension in the room as Mullen delivered his momentous remarks.

So back to the opening that Mullen created -- this is the time in a football game when, after patiently waiting for 17 years, the LGBT movement has been handed the ball behind a trusty lineman (Mullen) who makes a key block that potentially clears the way for the game-winning touchdown. Any running back worth his or her salt shoots the gap right now. No hesitation. No delay.

Translation: The movement should be pushing forward, full speed ahead, to achieve full legislative repeal during this Congress. Why?

Because political analysts much smarter than I are whispering about the possibility that Democrats could lose their majority in the House this November.

Because momentum means everything in politics and it is firmly on the side of equality at this very moment.

Because it's entirely possible to craft a measure that both repeals the law and respects the yearlong time line the Department of Defense has laid out in order to study implementation.

And while many activists are frustrated by the notion that DOD is asking for a year or more to process the policy change, obsessing over implementation time lines is completely and utterly useless if Congress does not vote to repeal the law.

Based on what I've seen over the week, this is the moment to either seize victory or become victims of our own ineptitude. Lawmakers are teetering on the edge and no one appears to be firmly planted in their position.

The real action, it seems, is in the Senate, where colleagues genuinely diverge on the path forward and Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin clearly stated Tuesday that all options are on the table -- from placing a moratorium on discharges to enacting full repeal.

During the hearing, for instance, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to react to a legislative proposal that would "write into repeal legislation the period of time you suggest you need -- say, one year -- while legislating that at the end of that time, we would have finality -- in other words, a complete end to 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a former marine and secretary of the Navy, was more focused on clarifying that "this year of study will be followed by changes in the law" and not the other way around.

Gates seemed to lean toward completing the study first, saying he hoped the insights gleaned would "help inform the legislative process."

But he did not entirely dismiss Udall's approach.

"If legislation is passed repealing 'don't ask, don't tell,' we would feel it very important that we be given some period of time for that implementation, at least a year," Gates said.

On the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly press conference Thursday that her "preference" would be to pass legislation before the review is complete, but she wanted to "examine" the options. Perhaps equally as telling, during the same briefing she expressed reservations about taking votes on legislation in the House that the Senate was not poised to act on.

Where exactly the White House stands on pushing full repeal legislation through this year remains an open question. My sense is that there are competing factions among the inner circle -- those who feel a greater sense of urgency and those who say, "We did our part, we got the ball rolling, let's hang back now."

Regardless of what's going on behind closed doors, the administration is certainly using the prospect of repeal to play to the Democratic base.

At Thursday's Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in Washington, President Obama drew a healthy round of applause for the following lines.

"We appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court," he said. "We passed a service bill named for Ted Kennedy that's giving young and old a chance to serve their country and their communities. We're working with Congress to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

So even if the administration isn't yet willing to publicly lobby for repeal this year, it also wouldn't want to be caught standing in the way.

Events since Tuesday have most certainly demonstrated that there's room to maneuver and an opportunity for someone to come forth with same inspiration and clarity of vision as Adm. Mike Mullen.

Who that person will be and on what side of repeal they will come down remains an open question.

But it's abundantly clear that there will be far fewer pro-repeal votes to go around this time next year.

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