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View From Washington Playing Chicken


As the legislative push to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" switched into high gear this week, the pressure point between Congress and the Department of Defense was brought into sharp relief -- revealing what is shaping up to be a game of chicken over whether to take legislative action this year.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman's introduction of what he rightly called "the first serious attempt since 1993 to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell' in the Senate" was a giant leap forward in the march toward overturning the gay ban. Perhaps as important was the fact that Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cosponsored the bill -- only the second time he has ever signed on to a bill being considered before his committee, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

During Wednesday's introduction, Levin left no doubt that he is solidly behind Lieberman's push and aiming for full repeal, not simply a moratorium on discharges -- that's plan B.

"The main effort's going to be to repeal if the votes are there -- I hope they will be," Levin told reporters. "But if that's not available right now, then we would, at our markup, try to see if we can't get enough votes at least to suspend the discharges during this period."

Levin specifically noted that his committee's markup of the defense authorization legislation in mid May -- when the details of the base bill will be hashed out in committee -- would be "the best chance we would have of success" at passing either repeal or a moratorium. Bottom line, if the defense funding bill passes out of committee with a repeal measure in place, the onus will be on opponents of repeal to strip it out on the Senate floor.

But just two hours later, the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee took first crack at questioning the three-person panel that will be conducting the Pentagon's yearlong study of repeal, which is due at the beginning of December.

The co-chairs of the working group, Jeh Johnson, the Obama-appointed chief legal counsel for the DOD, and Gen. Carter Ham, took turns telling the committee that they believed Congress would want to be "informed" by their work -- the implication being that it shouldn't act until the review had been completed.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, chief sponsor of the House's repeal legislation, was completely undeterred by the testimony. His bill now has 189 cosponsors and another two dozen verbal commitments, putting repeal within striking distance in the House.

"We have the votes in the House," he said after the hearing. "We are going to get this thing done this year -- I don't care if it's a stand-alone bill, attached to the National Defense Authorization Act or any other piece of legislation. But this will be changed this year."

Rep. Susan Davis, chairwoman of the subcommittee, was even more blunt in her assessment. "It's not their job to tell Congress what to do."

But that didn't stop the military. Whether it's repeal or moratorium, the service chiefs have now lined up uniformly against any measure that involves an immediate cessation of discharges and some have even advised keeping the law in place pending the review.

"My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, and to the president would be to keep the law," Gen. James Conway, head of the Marines, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

As long as we're keeping score, though, the secretaries of both the Navy and the Air Force endorsed repeal, while the Army secretary remained agnostic on the subject, objecting only to idea of suspending discharges before the Pentagon's study is completed.

And so it has come down to a classic legislative battle, with the military's top brass divided among themselves, congressional Democrats starting to push harder for repeal than perhaps ever before, and the White House trying to remain above the fray -- or at least sufficiently behind the scenes. (Although Lieberman said the Obama administration was "unequivocally" for repeal, White House officials declined to respond to a request for comment on his bill).

Lieberman's task now will be to line up the committee's Democrats as well as find a Republican cosponsor or two -- one of the main reasons the White House asked him to sponsor the bill in the first place.

Sen. Susan Collins's refusal to sign on to the bill thus far has many LGBT advocates scratching their heads. She's generally joined at the hip with Lieberman and often cosponsors pro-equality legislation. "It's not like it's an act of political courage, given the politics of Maine," said one Hill insider.

Of course, since Sen. John McCain is the ranking Republican on the committee, his vociferous opposition to repeal has complicated supporting it for any moderate GOP committee member.

On the other hand, the committee's Democrats will have to cast a vote against their very own chairman if they are to doom repeal.

Let the vote counting and arm-twisting begin.

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