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View From Washington


I have to level with you -- "don't ask, don't tell" repeal is most likely dead. Goodness knows, I hope to be wrong, but nothing short of a December-induced miracle on 34th Street could resurrect it now.

Of course, no one in Washington is going to come right out and say it because business here is done within a complicated strata of subterfuge that's rarely decipherable to outsiders. But there hasn't been so much as a single smoke signal suggesting that the White House or the Democratic leadership has the will to push repeal through.

The near-final nail in the coffin was delivered by Senate majority leader Harry Reid over the weekend when he announced the floor schedule for the week of December 6: nothing Monday, on Tuesday/Wednesday an impeachment trial of a federal judge from Louisiana, with the first votes of the week likely to come on Thursday.

Once the impeachment is a wrap, Reid noted that left "a pretty clear path" to what else needed to be addressed - tax cuts, a Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty plus votes on some other extraneous bills, one of which included the DREAM Act.

Reid said the schedule should leave the Senate "ample time" to complete those priorities and that they hoped to adjourn on December 17.

"That's the plan, we hope we can execute it," he said with an air of finality from the Senate floor Saturday.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin -- perhaps slightly dismayed at no mention of the National Defense Authorization Act -- prodded Reid to "say something about the Defense bill."

Oh yeah ... that. "We're also trying to figure out a time to move forward on the defense authorization bill," Reid added, along with offering some minutiae about process and time being too scarce to debate the bill without putting limitations on the number of amendments and length of debate. ( has the full video here if you're feeling super-wonky.)

But as I see it, what Reid said after being prompted by Levin is beside the point. The majority leader laid out the must-gets and they line up perfectly with what the White House has been pushing as its lead lame-duck items for the past couple months: extending the middle-class tax cuts and passing START. Press secretary Robert Gibbs has continually pounded these two points home in the White House briefings, rarely mentioning the defense authorization bill unless responding to a direct question about the policy. And a listing of White House talking points that was distributed to Congress members after last week's bipartisan meeting made no mention of the National Defense Authorization Act. But guess what was mentioned? START and taxes.

In support of START, the White House also rolled out a highly touted and televised meeting last week between President Barack Obama and former Joint Chiefs chair and Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss the merits of passing the treaty. That's what's known as having some real skin in the game.

Now, the White House has held a series of much lower-profile meetings with DADT repeal advocates in the past few weeks -- the latest coming last Friday night. But let's be clear, there's just no comparison between meeting behind closed doors with Brian Bond and Tina Tchen of the Office of Public Engagement and a televised POTUS press conference with Gen. Colin Powell.

If DADT repeal finally dies (either without a vote or following a symbolic vote that's doomed to fail), politicians, pundits and advocates alike are surely going to deliver a panoply of theories and excuses as to why -- the GOP wouldn't cooperate, the clock ran out, bad timing because of more salient issues.

But here's the truth: It will be a fundamental failure of leadership from the top down, starting with President Obama.

The White House chose not to address "don't ask, don't tell" until 2010; then they let the Pentagon set the release date of the working group study for December and make the Senate vote contingent on its review.

In fact, no one seemed more frustrated with this time line than Senator Levin at the end of Friday's hearing on the Pentagon report.

During an exchange with one of the witnesses, Levin noted that pushing the bill through during the lame-duck session "wasn't our timing," referring to Democrats on his committee.

"We're trying to get this bill to the floor; we've been trying for a long time. We didn't pick the lame-duck to take this up," Levin said. "We didn't set the time for the report."

The fact is, Democratic leaders sealed their own fate on a packed calendar. If the White House and Majority Leader Reid had shown any urgency about extending tax cuts to the middle class prior to the midterms -- which could have been a great campaign issue for them to tout as a win -- they wouldn't presently be backed into the corner of negotiating with the GOP to extend tax cuts for all, including the top 2% of household earners. But instead of forcing that vote, Dems adjourned early before the midterms, and once they came back, their bargaining power was in the tank after the whipping they took at the ballot box.

Here's how The New York Times summed up the tax predicament on Friday: "The sense within both parties was that Democrats were essentially negotiating the terms of their major retreat on an issue that they once considered a slam-dunk on both substantive and political levels." In other words, the vast majority of Americans favor extending tax cuts to the middle class but not the rich, yet Democrats managed to completely bungle the issue and are now at the mercy of the GOP.

If tax cuts had been pushed through before the midterms, there might be "ample time" now to debate the defense authorization bill too, but neither the White House nor the Democratic leadership fought to make that happen.

Meanwhile, the White House has opted to put START in the pipeline after the tax cuts for no apparent reason. By most people's estimations, START could absolutely be passed next year despite increased Republican control of Congress.

As Sen. Joe Lieberman told me after the hearings on Friday, "In my opinion, there's more urgency to the defense authorization bill than START. I'm going to be for START, but ya know, we could do that in January or February."

Right. So if START could easily be accomplished next year when Republicans hold a majority in the House but "don't ask, don't tell" repeal is almost certainly DOA, which would you choose to do?

Was this "the vision" and "the plan" of the White House that the Human Rights Campaign's Joe Solmonese mysteriously alluded to in an NYT article in the spring of 2009?

Seemingly that plan was to pass hate-crimes legislation and only hate-crimes legislation during the best opportunity that history has ever presented to advance LGBT equality bills.

Bottom line, if "don't ask, don't tell" repeal dies on the vine, the White House earned this epic failure and they own it.
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Kerry Eleveld