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View From Washington: Game Over?

View From Washington: Game Over?


About an hour after the appearance last Friday of Defense secretary Robert Gates's letter urging Congress to wait on moving "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, a close confidant of mine who is very pro-repeal and all too familiar with the ways of Washington sent me an e-mail.

"Well that's it. I read the letter. It's not going to happen," it said.

While it's not clear that an alternative to full repeal is dead, I would hazard to guess one week later that my friend was right -- repeal as the LGBT community knew it and understood it seems at the very least to be suffering death by a thousand cuts.

True, the White House statementin response to the Gates letter left a small opening for potentially voting this year and implementing later. Though Gates asked Congress to wait on repeal until the Pentagon completes its implementation study, the White House response said that "the implementation of any congressional repeal" -- but not necessarily the vote -- would be delayed until the DOD study was released.

Neither statement explicitly said no vote should be taken this year, but if Congress waits until December, when the Pentagon report is due, that effectively quashes the repeal effort since the major action on the Department of Defense authorization bill is scheduled to take place in both chambers later this month.

Gates, according to people close to the matter, is unswervingly wedded to a linear progression of events here -- the study must be completed first because it will inform the way the legislation is crafted.

Which, as one Hill insider pointed out, is what you might teach in a class, "but on Capitol Hill, you deal with the art of the possible."

So that's the question that every repeal advocate is now pondering: What's politically possible now that Gates has driven a stake through the heart of the effort to persuade moderate Democrats to support full repeal? And what most people working on the matter seem to agree upon is that whatever is possible this year, may very well be impossible next year after the midterm election reconfigures Congress.

The only move that could fully counterbalance the positioning from Gates is for the White House to take a stand or find a compromise or put its weight behind anything, really. But any evidence of that intention has yet to come -- a refrain that has surfaced all too often lately in relation to the White House and "don't ask, don't tell."

While it's hard to know for certain whether someone, somewhere inside the White House cleared the Gates letter before it was sent, it was surely a vacuum of leadership and clear direction that created the opening.

And Gates knew the correspondence would have a chilling effect on the legislation. "If anyone has bureaucratic instincts and an inside game, it's Gates," said one source. "This is a guy who started with a desk job at the CIA straight out of college."

While the White House continues the silent treatment, a handful of lawmakers have publicly pushed back, including Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, chief sponsor of the House repeal bill, and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Earlier this week, Murphy said he had been "blindsided" by the letter from Gates and vowed "to keep fighting till we get this done this year."

On Friday, Levin's office released a correspondence between the senator and Gates in which Levin asked the Defense secretary to clarify the charge of the Pentagon's working group study, due out in early December.

"Is the purpose of this comprehensive review to determine 'whether' to repeal the statue or is it to assess the issues related to 'how' to implement a repeal of the statute?" wrote Levin.

Gates responded by revisiting his testimony from the February 2 hearing on "don't ask, don't tell" in which he stated, "The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change but how we ... best prepare for it."

It may seem a minute matter of semantics, but it appears Levin is building a case -- methodically laying out the rationale -- for a supporting argument for a moratorium or perhaps some newly fashioned repeal language.

He did, for instance, say in February that continuing to expel people under the policy "creates a real dilemma" when the president has said he wants to scrap the gay ban and the Defense Department is conducting a study aimed at ending it.

If this were a chess game, Gates made a move last Friday and declared "Checkmate!" and Levin is now surveying the board for a way out.

The White House statement last Friday said, "This is not a question of if, but how" and added, "The President is committed to getting this done both soon and right."

Now seems as good a time as any to ask, "How and when, Mr. President?"

But while you're waiting for an answer, keep your eye on Levin. Whatever he is able to usher through the Senate Armed Services Committee is going to set the pace for this effort.
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