Just after Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan told reporters that he had not ruled out pushing for full congressional repeal of the law in 2010 but added that he thought placing a moratorium on discharges was “a more likely prospect.”
“I think a moratorium in this period is the minimum that we should seek,” he said of including some sort of measure in the Department of Defense authorization bill. Levin said halting discharges was “consistent” with allowing the Pentagon to conduct its yearlong investigation proposed by Defense secretary Robert Gates into how to implement repeal.
Levin also suggested the moratorium approach might have the political advantage of not requiring 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
“I don’t assume people are going to filibuster an entire Defense authorization bill because there’s a moratorium in there,” he said.
But the debate over what to seek in the way of legislation this year, if anything, is far from over. And much of the wrangling centers around the reality that if something is not accomplished legislatively this year regarding 'don't ask, don't tell,' the opportunity may be lost since Democrats will likely suffer substantial losses in the 2010 midterms.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he thinks the White House ultimately wants to do the right thing but is hedging on pushing for repeal right now.
“It’s my sense from the intel I’ve gathered that they don't necessarily want the legislative side of this to move forward ahead of the Pentagon’s process being finished,” he said, adding that the door wasn’t “closed off completely” either.
Nicholson said he thought the administration had been prudent to line up the support of Gates and Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen first, but he said his organization is pushing for legislative action this year, and he sees a couple of competing factions in the Senate.
“It's clear that there are a number of senators in particular who are eager to see some legislative movement on repeal,” Nicholson said, noting that senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Roland Burris of Illinois have made no secret of wanting to see a bill introduced and being willing to do it.
“I think it puts increased pressure on other senators to figure out sooner rather than later whether they will move forward with something and what form it's going to take,” he said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has spoken with the White House in the past about strategies for repeal, but his intentions regarding the legislation remain unclear. Last week, a spokesperson for his office said simply, “Senator Lieberman has long supported reversing 'don’t ask, don’t tell' and will work with the Administration, the military and his colleagues in Congress for repeal.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
A spokesperson for Senate majority leader Harry Reid also struck a cautious tone on the matter.
"Senator Reid supports repeal and hopes that the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing is the first step toward that goal," said Jim Manley. "It's now up to the Armed Services Committee to begin examining all the options on the table, including repeal, moratorium, and a study."
While Senate legislation related to the gay ban has yet to emerge, Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania has taken the lead on the House repeal bill — the Military Readiness Enhancement Act — which has 187 cosponsors. According to Democratic aides, nearly 200 members have said they would vote for it, just shy of the 218 votes necessary to pass the bill.
One Democratic aide said many Democratic lawmakers are still “overwhelmingly” focused on achieving repeal in 2010.
“There's no reason legislative repeal and the Pentagon development of an implementation plan cannot happen concurrently,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’re looking at this as a parallel track.”
The aide noted the added momentum for repeal after Admiral Mullen signaled his strong personal support for ending the ban at the hearings.
“The argument that we need to hear from the military on this was completely obliterated Tuesday,” said the aide.
That's also the way out Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts saw the stars aligning.
“With this reaffirmation of the President’s commitment, the strong statement of Admiral Mullen, and the support of Secretary Gates, the way is now clear for both houses of Congress to vote in this year’s Defense Authorization to remove one of the few explicit endorsements of bigotry in our country,” Frank said in statement released Wednesday evening.
But House speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed as noncommittal about the path forward as Sen. Reid.
“I don’t know,” she told reporters at her weekly press conference Wednesday. “I’ll have to examine. We’ll take a look. We’ll sit down together and see what is the advantage of going first with legislation or would the legislation more aptly reflect what is in the review — or is it a two-step process?”
Servicemembers United's Nicholson said some lawmakers seem to be looking at alternative legislative routes that would achieve the same end as Murphy’s bill.
“I do think there are ways to lock in an end date for full repeal but give the Pentagon plenty of time to undertake their review process,” he said.
All eyes will be on the Senate Armed Services Committee over the next couple months as the service chiefs and the respective secretaries for the armed services testify before it.
“Following that process, the bill comes before us for our consideration,” Levin said, referring to this year's Department of Defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2011, the most likely vehicle for action on the issue. “We will try to figure out whether we want to try to do something in the authorization bill.”
When the Pentagon sent its budget recommendations to the Hill, it did not include mention "don't ask, don't tell" repeal.