Capitol Hill insiders continue to assess the fallout on "don't ask, don't tell" following a potentially game-changing letter in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged House Armed Services Committee chair Ike Skelton of Missouri not to vote on repeal before the Pentagon completes its implementation study in December.
"Clearly the world changed dramatically with the Gates letter," said one Hill veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Everyone is trying to figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again."
The source said that prior to Gates's letter, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee was just one to two votes shy of the 15 needed to attach a repeal measure to this year's Department of Defense authorization bill in committee. Folding repeal into the must-pass Defense funding bill in committee would place the onus on those who oppose repeal to find 51 votes to strip out the measure on the Senate floor.
Multiple sources worried that moderate Democrats such as Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia would now be nearly impossible to sway.
"When people are asked to vote against the recommendations of the Defense Secretary, that makes it a very heavy lift," said the source.
Another Hill insider said the question now is whether it's possible to usher through some alternative approach, such as taking a repeal vote this year but delaying implementation in accordance with the Pentagon's preferred timeline.
"But that would require the White House weighing in and changing the dynamic and I'm not confident they will do it," said the source, who also agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs appeared to be unfamiliar with such a delayed implementation strategy during Wednesday's press briefing but said he would check into it.
The source said there were likely two schools of thought in the White House on the matter.
"Some are probably saying, 'We made deal with Gates and we just need to stick with that.' Others might be saying, 'The community is kicking the crap out of us right now and we need to come up with a Plan B.'"
The "deal" the source referred to was the probable understanding that the Pentagon would be allowed to steward the implementation process according its own timeline. The source added that finding a "Plan B" would require the White House to reengage Secretary Gates on the matter of repeal in order to find common ground.
Both sources said it was difficult to know where the votes stood now in the Senate Armed Services Committee, but that things should become clearer in another two to three weeks.
They both agreed that Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, chief sponsor of the House repeal bill (H.R. 1283), had the 216 votes to pass the measure as either a stand-alone bill or an attachment to the Defense authorization bill on the House floor.
"The question is, does the House want to take a vote on something that might go nowhere in the Senate?" said the second source. The House has already passed more than 300 bills this Congressional session on which the Senate has yet to act, and as the midterm elections loom, some members worry that every new vote is a potential liability that could be turned against them.
The House is likely to consider the Defense funding bill on the House
floor the week of May 24 -- the same week that the Senate Armed Services
Committee is scheduled to vote on the legislation. Repeal advocates
have been concerned that simultaneous consideration in both chambers
could hamper efforts to attach a repeal measure; they generally believe
the best-case scenario would be for the Senate Armed Services Committee
to address the issue first.
Another alternative to full repeal
might the fallback of putting a moratorium on discharges.
second source said suspending discharges might gain traction even though
advocates have been reluctant to settle for anything less than full
"If you buy into the idea that the Pentagon study is not
about if but when, it makes perfect sense."
officials have consistently opposed suspending discharges, some
Democratic leaders on the Hill continue to support it, suggesting that
it may be a potential alternative to voting on full repeal this year.
Sen. Levin has been floating the concept publicly for several months,
and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the administration to
"immediately place a moratorium on dismissals" in her response to the
letter from Secretary Gates.
Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts has strongly
advocated for full repeal but in an interview prior to the Gates letter said a moratorium could certainly be
better than nothing.
"If it was a moratorium that was only going
to be for six months and then ['don't ask, don't tell'] would go back
into effect, that would be a problem," he said. "But a moratorium that
would be the first step to abolition is almost as good as abolition