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View From Washington


Is anyone else confused about "don't ask, don't tell"? That's because there are more political layers to this bloomin' onion than even Julia Child could have deftly peeled back on her best day. And anyone who tells you they know what will happen at Tuesday's vote is either lying or delusional.

The main problem is that politicians on both sides of the aisle are locked in a battle that, even as it has everything to do with the fate of the policy, also has little to do with the policy itself. They are supposedly squabbling over the procedural issue of how many amendments Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow the Republicans to offer on the Senate floor if the National Defense Authorization Act that includes repeal even makes it to the Senate floor.

Democrats need 60 votes to break the GOP filibuster. Since their caucus includes 59 senators and one or two of them might not vote to break the filibuster, they will have to pick up at least one if not two or three Republicans.

All eyes are GOP senators Scott Brown, Susan Collins, Richard Lugar, Olympia Snowe, and George Voinovich as potential pickoffs. But in truth, part of their decision will come down to a question of whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gives them a behind-the-scenes nod to vote against their own party and with the Dems. If he does not, they will be faced with the dilemma of either voting their conscience on whether to move the defense funding bill forward or toeing the party line.

Meanwhile, the more cynical among Beltway insiders posit that neither party has a serious interest in seeing the bill move, even if some individual senators would truly like to see it proceed and eventually be signed into law with DADT repeal intact. But from a party perspective, watching it go down in flames is seen as a win for the GOP simply because they would rather not see the Democrats have any legislative victories between now and the November midterms, while the Democrats can throw up their hands and tell two of their key constituencies -- gays and Latinos -- that they tried to get repeal and immigration provisions through but the GOP blocked the effort.

It's a wicked brew, to be sure.

The GOP has crafted a clever message, claiming that Democrats are merely playing politics with the defense authorization bill to their own ends and cutting Republicans out of the process -- a charge made by everyone from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to Senator Collins to the Log Cabin Republicans.

"Senator Harry Reid is treating the United States Senate like his own personal re-election campaign," read a statement from Log Cabin. "We are simply asking the majority to play fair and not stack the National Defense Authorization Act with Democrat-only amendments that could potentially kill any bi-partisan support and thus jeopardize repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"

Meanwhile Reid said from the Senate floor Thursday that Republicans would in fact be able to offer more amendments to the legislation, and Levin told me Thursday that Reid was absolutely not trying to "foreclose" the number of amendments that can be offered.

But for the most part, Democrats don't seem to be working very hard at sending an equally strong and unified response to the Republicans. The most obvious message would go something like, "Republicans are once again trying to block movement on legislation of great importance to the American people. Just like they're trying to stall tax cuts for small businesses from being debated, they are now threatening to block funding for America's brave young men and women serving overseas."

In some ways, it's difficult to tell if Dems are being outwitted or simply letting themselves be outwitted. But that message hasn't been deployed anywhere when we could be seeing similarly worded statements coming out of every Democratic office from that of Reid to Dick Durbin to Carl Levin.

What repeal advocates need is for a couple Republicans to stand on principle, similar to what Voinovich declared he would do on small business tax cuts, another situation where the GOP threatened to filibuster unless they could get more amendments.

From last week's Washington Post: "Voinovich said he could no longer support Republican efforts to delay the measure in hopes of winning the right to offer additional amendments. Most of the proposed GOP amendments 'didn't have anything to do with the bill' anyway, Voinovich said, and amounted merely to partisan 'messaging.' 'We don't have time for messaging,' Voinovich said. 'We don't have time anymore. This country is really hurting.'"

And then there's the White House, which invited Log Cabin to a meeting about the bill on Friday but doesn't appear to be working very hard to woo any senators for its passage.

"They gave me their assurances that they would like to see this passed," said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin, which was the only advocacy group at the meeting.

But after I spoke to three people who lobby on DADT, not a single one said they knew of the White House's legislative affairs team or the president lifting a finger on the matter.

"If you really want something, you deploy your legislative shop to the hill," said one lobbyist.

One would think the White House has a stake in making sure this legislative effort doesn't die. since the administration seems committed to defending the constitutionality of every antigay law on the books. Even more to the point, if the bill's defeated, President Obama is facing a 2012 election scenario in which his only legislative accomplishment for the LGBT community would be passing hate-crimes legislation. I wonder how many LGBT Americans would call that fierce.

Meanwhile, Lady Gaga has been a more visible force for DADT repeal than almost every politician in Washington combined. Trust me when I say that this reporter -- who suffers from severe pop culture deficit -- initially discounted her. But after having discharged soldiers escort her to the Video Music Awards, exchanging tweets with Reid's office about the vote, tweeting an explanation of a filibuster, and instructing her "little monsters" to call their senators, Lady Gaga penetrated my Beltway myopia.

The YouTube video she posted Thursday advocating for repeal already has nearly a million views, and yet not a single statement urging passage of the legislation from the White House.

At last year's Human Rights Campaign dinner, which featured appearances by both President Obama and Lady Gaga, the president joked, "It is a privilege to be here tonight to open for Lady Gaga."

While Obama's performance may have given Gaga a run for her money that night, he is clearly being upstaged by her now.
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