Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Marine commandant Gen. James Amos made contradictory statements over the weekend regarding “don’t ask, don’t tell,” while talk swirled of a deal that would remove the repeal provision from the defense funding bill.
Secretary Gates, making an unusual break from his consistent calls for Congress to wait on repeal until the Pentagon delivers its study in December, voiced his support for congressional action during the lame-duck session along with his doubts for its success.
"I would like to see the repeal of ‘don't ask, don't tell,’ but I'm not sure what the prospects for that are," Gates told the Associated Press Saturday, while traveling in Australia.
But Gates’s comments may be a moot point. Over the weekend, observers of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate began cautiously acknowledging that an effort is in the works to potentially move a stripped-down version of the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that would exclude repeal.
A person close to the process said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is looking into a deal with Gates that would cut ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ out of the defense bill in order to smooth its way to passage.
“Levin is making calls under the premise — we can’t afford to waste time on a controversial provision, so we’ll strip out the controversial provision and be able to get the bill on and off the floor in the available amount of time,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Levin's office did not respond to an inquiry for comment on short notice.
Time is not on the side of those who would like to see repeal completed this year. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has already left the NDAA out of his lineup of three bills to be considered during the week of November 15. Senators will then adjourn for Thanksgiving holiday and return November 29. Reid has said he would like to adjourn for the year early on December 10, which would leave just two weeks to complete the defense bill — a near impossibility. Meanwhile, President Obama has said his priorities for lame-duck include ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and extending the Bush tax cuts to middle-class Americans, both of which could require lengthy debate.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called Gates’s remarks “extraordinary” but noted the mixed blessing of latest developments in a statement to reporters.
"We welcome Secretary Gates's call for the Senate to act on repeal in the lame-duck session. Indeed, the Senate should call up the defense bill reported out of committee and pass it before it goes home for the year,” Sarvis said. “Any talk about a watered-down defense bill, whereby the 'don't ask' revisions would be stripped out, is unacceptable and offensive to the gay and lesbian service members who risk their lives every day."
Sarvis was less absolutist about Levin’s course of action, explaining that the senator was looking into three scenarios in order get some version of the defense bill passed: moving the original bill with full debate on amendments; seeing if some sort of bipartisan consensus could be reached on a limited number of amendments; or, if all else fails, seeing if some sort of “mini bill” could be negotiated.
“In that scenario my fear is that the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ provision could be stripped out,” he told The Advocate, calling it a matter of last resort. “Levin doesn’t want to be the first committee chairman [in half a century] not to see an NDAA pass.”
But the anonymous source was less generous.
“This is another in a long series of cases where Democrats are capitulating to the Republicans,” said the source.
Sarvis said repeal advocates had made it “abundantly clear” that they are against any defense bill that excludes the DADT measure.
But one advocate, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the White House should be more motivated than ever to make sure repeal is not dropped from the legislation.
“If a scaled-down version of the bill is sent to the president’s desk, in all likelihood he will have to sign it and he will be blasted for that.”
In the meantime, the new head of the Marine Corps said he thought repeal would be risky while U.S. troops were engaged in two wars overseas.
"There's risk involved," Gen. James Amos told reporters. "I'm trying to determine how to measure that risk. This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness."