As LGBT activists grow more desperate to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” before the midterm elections, a picture is emerging of a divided White House where President Barack Obama’s own words are sometimes odds with the message his administration is sending about repeal.
Early in the year, multiple sources say some administration officials counseled the president against acting on the military’s gay ban in 2010. Still, Obama included his intention to end the policy in his State of the Union address, saying, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law…”
Yet just days after the January 27 speech, White House officials convened a meeting on February 1 with LGBT advocates in which they said the policy would not be included in the president’s recommendations for this year's Department of Defense authorization bill, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.
“It was a definitive shut-down from [Jim] Messina,” said a source, who was present at the meeting and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, referring to the White House deputy chief of staff. “He said it would not be going into the president’s Defense authorization budget proposal.” The news was a blow to activists since the Defense funding bill is the best legislative vehicle for including a measure to overturn the policy. “It almost seemed like the bar on the hurdle got raised two or three times higher,” said the source.
The White House declined to comment on the meeting.
But the Human Rights Campaign’s David Smith, who also attended the meeting, recalls it differently.
“They were noncommittal about legislation in that meeting, but not definitively one way or the other,” said Smith, vice president of programs for HRC.
According to Smith, the meeting included discussion of the Pentagon’s working group, who was going to lead that group, and their intent to review the current regulations and consider how they could reduce discharges.
Since the president’s State of the Union pledge, the White House has failed to set a timeline for repeal. Press secretary Robert Gibbs has declined several times to indicate whether the president would like to see legislative action taken this year.
During Wednesday’s press briefing, Gibbs signaled that President Obama was committed to first letting the Pentagon complete its study, which is due in early December.
“The President has set forward a process with the Joint -- the Chair of the Joint Chiefs and with the Secretary of Defense to work through this issue,” he said, adding that the president believes the Pentagon’s process is “the best way forward” to changing the law.
Gibbs also laid the responsibility for whether a repeal vote is taken at the doorstep of Congress.
“The House and the Senate are obviously a different branch of government,” he added.
Smith took exception to the remarks from Gibbs.
“Those comments were not helpful and the White House needs to clarify that,” he said. “The president said he wants to work with Congress this year to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell' and we take the president at his word. But as we continue to put pressure on Congress, the White House needs to speak with one voice and not send us mixed messages.”
Repeal advocates feel a simultaneous sense of urgency and possibility, since they are only two to three votes away from having the 15 votes necessary to enfold a repeal measure into the DOD authorization bill in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Successfully attaching the measure in committee would put the onus on opponents of repeal to find the 60 votes in order to strip it out on the Senate floor.
“We have 12 to 13 firm votes for repeal,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Lobbyists say they are concentrating their efforts in the committee on Democrats Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Jim Webb of Virginia along with Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
Sarvis said he believes some senators are looking for a game-changer, which could come in the form of repeal language that honors the Pentagon’s working group process while still legislatively locking down an end to the policy in 2010.
The concept was first floated by the group Servicemembers United earlier this year, and repeal advocates are working to help craft such an amendment. Under this scenario, discharges and investigations would continue for a period even after the president signs the defense authorization into law until the Pentagon completes its implementation period.
Sarvis added that President Obama could boost repeal efforts by stating his desire to see the measure passed this year but, more importantly, by getting personally involved with lobbying senators.
“We need the president to become actively engaged in this vote, not unlike the way he is engaged with financial services reform right now,” he said.
The problem for the White House is that they have committed to letting the Pentagon study on how to implement repeal run its course.
“Their dilemma is that they’re committed to Gates and Mullen on the working group process,” Sarvis said. “They have to thread that needle of being faithful to the working group but still getting a vote in committee this year.”
HRC’s Smith said those two goals are not at odds with each other.
“We believe that Congress can and should perform legislative repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ at the same time that the Pentagon continues its working group study,” he said.