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Levin Gives DADT Repeal a Lifeline

Levin Gives DADT Repeal a Lifeline


"Don't ask, don't tell" repeal advocates said Friday that a vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee remained possible even as the window dwindles to a matter of days and the White House remains on the sidelines.

"We are working toward and heading for votes within the House and Senate in the next few weeks, and that's where our resources are focused," said David Smith, vice president of programs for the Human Rights Campaign.

Advocates met last Friday with Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and have had ongoing conversations with other senators' staffs, including that of Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, sponsor of the Senate's repeal bill.

Levin and Lieberman have been lobbying their Armed Services Committee colleagues member-to-member on several repeal options in order to piece together the 15 votes that would allow them to attach the measure in committee to the Department of Defense authorization bill. The committee is scheduled to pound out final language of the defense funding bill and vote on it during a closed-door session the week of May 24.

A spokeswoman for Levin's office said the senator would attach repeal language if he drummed up enough support in the committee.

"If he has the votes, he would support moving forward with an amendment during the markup," Tara Andringa said. "He does not yet know what that would look like or where the votes are."

Alex Nicholson, executive director of gay veterans group Servicemembers United, said because of the legislative options he was more optimistic about the chances for repeal than he had been in recent months.

"For the first time in a long time I think that we have a realistic, politically viable path to repeal right now," he said. "It will depend on what kind of buy-in we get from key members on the committee and from the White House."

Despite Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urging Congress not to vote on repeal this year, Levin has has continued to push forward with the effort. "The president says he wants to repeal 'Don't ask.' Why shouldn't we repeal it?" Levin told Congressional Quarterly earlier this week.

Though Gates's objections have posed a challenge to swaying a handful of legislators on the committee, one person with knowledge of the matter said repeal supporters were on the verge of securing the final votes.

"We're very close -- within one or two votes -- and we feel optimistic about that," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Advocates were reticent to discuss details of the options that are being presented, but several indicated that a moratorium on discharges had been taken off the table for now and that full repeal was central to every potentiality.

"I would characterize all options under consideration -- the only thing the community is pushing and blessing -- is full repeal," Nicholson said. "The only differences are how long it might take to take effect."

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said Levin, Lieberman, and Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, chief sponsor of the House repeal bill, were searching for a compromise that would please the triumvirate of the White House, the Department of Defense, and their fellow legislators on the Hill.

"Chairman Levin along with Senator Lieberman and Representative Murphy are still actively looking at legislative options for repeal this year and would like to find a solution that Secretary Gates and the White House could support," Sarvis said.

Several advocates characterized Levin as a hero in the effort.

"We would not still be alive today without the chairman's leadership," Sarvis said, "and frankly, some in the executive branch have been surprised by Chairman Levin's commitment and his continuing sustained determination to find a winning vote in his committee."

Throughout the efforts, the White House has continued to remain in the background.

A second source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House was partially in a bind based on an agreement White House officials had made with Defense Department officials earlier this year to let the Pentagon's working group study reach completion before pushing for a repeal vote.

The source, who had knowledge of the meeting, said discussions around "the process" began in December and were finalized in January, when prospects for the administration's main agenda items, such as health care reform, were still looking grim.

The White House did not immediately respond to an inquiry for this article.

Secretary Gates has repeatedly said he does not support Congress taking legislative action prior to completion of the Pentagon study.

"I do not recommend a change in the law before we have completed our study," he said during a March briefing at the Pentagon.

Asked whether the White House agreed with his position, Gates added, "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."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly declined to say whether the president favors legislative action this year.

But during an April briefing he said the president was committed to letting the working group complete its study.

"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.

Pressed on whether that study would have to be completed before legislative action was taken, Gibbs added, "Well, again -- the House and the Senate are obviously a different branch of government. The president has a process and a proposal I think that he believes is the best way forward to seeing, again, the commitment that he's made for many years in trying to -- changing that law."

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