The executive director of the lead group that lobbies for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” sent a letter Monday to President Barack Obama urging him to “reaffirm” his commitment to end the policy and charging that administration officials have been discouraging congressional action behind the scenes.
“I am very disturbed by multiple reports from Capitol Hill that your Congressional liaison team is urging some Members of Congress to avoid a vote on repeal this year,” read the letter from Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, as first reported by Ben Smith in POLITICO.
Sarvis told The Advocate that he has gotten reports from Capitol Hill staffers in both the Senate and House that representatives from the Department of Defense have asked them to hold off on taking a vote on the policy until a report on how to implement repeal is completed. The study, ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February, is due in early December.
“The administration is saying, ‘Look, the working group has its task, their work is not concluded until the end of the year, and we would prefer that this not be voted on this year,’” Sarvis said.
Asked if the directive came from officials at the White House or the Defense Department, Sarvis said, “It’s the Pentagon, but the Pentagon is part of the administration.”
The Department of Defense was not immediately available for comment.
Sarvis said he did not know of any White House officials who had discouraged a vote since the president made a pledge to repeal the gay ban in his State of the Union address in January.
“The president has spoken, and I think those that are closest to him have not done anything that is at odds with his word,” he said.
During that speech, Obama said, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
But in March, Defense secretary Robert Gates told reporters he thought it would be “risky” to move on legislative repeal before the Pentagon’s working group finishes its review.
“I do not recommend a change in the law before we have completed our study,” Gates said.
Asked if the White House agreed with his time line, Gates responded, “You would have to ask them, but I would tell you that my impression is that the president is very comfortable with the process that we’ve laid out.”
Sarvis said the secretary’s comments are entirely consistent with the reports he has gotten from the Hill, which have come from House staffers who work for members with a seat on the House Armed Services Committee and Senate staffers whose senators do not sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Nobody should be surprised if there are people from DOD up on the Hill urging congress not to vote,” he said. “Gates really doesn’t want a vote this year, so I think they're trying to get the word to Democrats who would be receptive to not taking the vote this year.”
The challenge for pro-repeal advocates, Sarvis said, is finding a way to reconcile the president’s stated goal in the State of the Union with the secretary’s desire to have the remainder of 2010 to finish the study. Sarvis said his organization and other groups are working to bridge that gap. Servicemembers United, a gay veterans group floated a plan earlier this year that would legislatively lock in repeal this session but respect the implementation timetable laid out by Pentagon officials.
Since the State of the Union, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has declined to indicate whether the president would like to see Congress vote on repeal this year.
But Sarvis said the clock is ticking, since both Armed Services Committees and even the full House might vote in the next 30-45 days on the Defense authorization bill, the preferred vehicle for a repeal measure.
“The train is leaving,” Sarvis said. “We could have key votes before the Memorial Day recess.”
Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts has also displayed a heightened sense of urgency about repeal recently and even called on the White House last month to “make clear that it supports legislative action this year.”
But Frank said he had heard no reports of White House officials explicitly discouraging a vote on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I’ve never heard that,” Frank said. “I’ve talked to both Patrick (Murphy) and Carl (Levin) who are working on it, neither one of them have said that to me.” Rep. Murphy and Sen. Levin are spearheading the repeal effort in the House and Senate respectively.
Frank also said that he has not heard from White House officials since he began prodding them to take a stand on the timing of a vote.
“I haven’t talked to the White House about this,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve been sending them public messages about how unhappy I am.”