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In the wake of testimony from the military leadership last week supporting an end to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a national organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans is advancing a new path forward to achieving full legislative repeal in 2010.
"After the hearing, I think there's been an expectation that we would have a study process in 2010 and a legislative process in 2011," said Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United. "But a lot of us in the military community feel like that's a grave political mistake and we're potentially risking the entire issue by proceeding that way."
As an alternative, Servicemembers United is proposing what it calls a "Set End Date/Delayed Implementation" model that would unfold over an 18-month time frame, locking in a date for full repeal while still allowing the Pentagon working group to proceed with the implementation review process initiated by Department of Defense secretary Robert Gates.
Nicholson said his group decided to make a public push for the strategy because they do not believe the current House bill, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, could garner the necessary support of the Senate by the end of 2010 since it allows only 90 days for DOD to set forth new regulations upon passage.
"A lot of different elements within the LGBT and progressive communities had been holding out for full and immediate repeal which has been embodied in the Military Readiness Enhancement Act," said Nicholson. "We have been arguing throughout 2009 that that is not attainable right now -- that you're not going to get repeal until you get Pentagon support and you're not going to get Pentagon support unless you briefly delay implementation."
Servicemembers United is calling for new legislation to be introduced and passed this year, and its outline includes a regular reporting structure in which the DOD reports back to Congress every three months on how its implementation plan is progressing until full repeal is achieved 18 months from when the working group actually began its review.
"I think this pairs very well with the preconditions set by the Pentagon for their support but also the goals of the LGBT community, the progressive community, and the president," Nicholson said.
Of the several LGBT groups lobbying to end the military's gay ban, the four-year-old Servicemembers United has been the most low-profile, choosing to work mostly behind the scenes at forming relationships with Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House.
But Nicholson said the group decided to step forward now that a key opening
has been created, but many in Washington seem content to let the
Pentagon complete its plan before pushing for legislative repeal.
"I think people are yearning for something solid out there to rally around and some leadership to fill a void," he said.
Nicholson said his organization had briefed other LGBT groups on the plan and will be reaching out to key senators who have expressed an interest in potentially advancing repeal this year -- including Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Carl Levin of Michigan, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The organization also plans to reach out GOP senator Susan Collins of Maine, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is seen by many advocates as a potential ally on the path to repeal.
"We will be having some serious conversations with Senator Collins's office to gauge if this is something she would be interested in since it hasn't been out there all that much as an option until now," he said.
Nicholson said Servicemembers United spent much of last year discussing the plan with certain senators and talking to the White House about it. But at the time, he said, the White House was in the process of negotiating with the Pentagon and key senators were waiting for feedback from the White House. Nicholson said has talked to the White House about such a strategy more recently, but the Obama administration has not signaled its position one way or the other.