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Sen. Udall Urges DADT Action

Sen. Udall Urges DADT Action

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Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has become increasingly vocal about the necessity of passing the National Defense Authorization Act with "don't ask, don't tell" repeal attached before the end of the year. Last week he wrote a letter with senators Joe Lieberman and Kirsten Gillibrand pushing their Senate colleagues to pass the measure lest the Pentagon's repeal process be left entirely up to the courts.

In this wide-ranging interview on the topic, Udall says the Senate should stay in Washington until this year's defense authorization bill is passed, urges the White House and Defense Department to engage senators on the Hill, and calls the legislation "just too important to fall short."

The Advocate: What do you think the biggest hurdle is to repealing the policy this year?
Mark Udall: I think about all the hurdles we've already cleared and the support that we have -- the secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the president himself, and then the Senate Armed Services Committee voted in the spring to include the repeal. So I think the biggest hurdle now is a small group of senators who don't want to do what the country wants us to do, don't want to do what the House [of Representatives] made clear that they want us to do and don't want to do what the Senate Armed Services Committee made clear that they want us to do on a majority vote with a couple votes to spare.

So it is really concerning to me that we have almost this unprecedented level of gridlock when legislation that would support our troops, our national security, and our leadership in the world is prevented from even coming to debate -- the blockage of even beginning debate on the annual defense authorization bill, which has all these provisions I alluded to and a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" on a basis that fits the prescription and the defense sector's requests, is astonishing to me. Stunning.

Clearly, Sen. John McCain is one hurdle, but there is also a time line constraint, and Majority Leader Harry Reid is talking about potentially adjourning on December 10. How would that affect the effort and how high a priority is this for the Democratic leadership in the Senate?

That's a fair point. The talk of adjourning by the 10th of December, that's three weeks [that we will be in session]. I think we should stay in session and do the work that the people sent us to Washington to do. If that means a few extra days to pass a critically important defense bill, which includes this repeal provision, then we should stay. If we didn't pass this National Defense Authorization Act, it would be the first time in 49 years.

So setting aside specific controversial provisions that might have some opposition -- and I'm not just talking about "don't ask, don't tell," I'm talking about the F-22, the F-35 [fighter jets], and there are other provisions that were debated -- it's amazing to me that we wouldn't just start the debate and work through this, given the importance of the defense bill.

When the vote to proceed to debating the bill failed in September, it seemed to be a procedural hurdle. The Republicans said they weren't given a fair chance to add their amendments, and the Democrats were saying, yes, you can add your amendments once we proceed to debate the bill. Can you make daylight of that -- might it come down to this impasse again?
I am an optimist; I want to have this debate. I want to continue the record of success we've had in the time I've been in Congress when it comes to the NDAA. It may more broadly speak to the need for filibuster reform -- in that kind of reform, the motion to proceed [to debate], which is the one that is preventing us from moving to the bill, would no longer be available to filibuster. The Senate would have a chance to return to its days of glory when we were the most deliberative body in the world.

If the sticking point is that the Republicans want an opportunity to offer amendments and they feel like they weren't given that opportunity before the election, I have no problem with a more open amendment process. Certainly, the time limiter might be the holidays.

But the fact that the election is over and that voters have expressed their point of view more broadly, to me, opens up the opportunity to have a more open amendment process. In other words, there were concerns on both sides that there would be message amendments and amendments to make one party or the other look bad because the election was looming. It seems like we could move beyond that and we could really focus on policy debates.

There is this talk of potentially stripping the repeal measure from the bill and passing the NDAA without it. In your opinion, is there any scenario under which you could get "don't ask, don't tell" through if it's not attached to the defense bill?
I don't think there is, but I always believe hope springs eternal. I do think the best way to move this forward is in the NDAA, and I do worry that if we don't formalize the repeal process in statute now that we may not have this opportunity for a number of years in the future. If you listen to Secretary [Robert] Gates and Admiral [Mike] Mullen, they want the repeal in law; they want the Congress to have the final say. This is the most appropriate way to repeal an outdated policy that undercuts our national security.

Do you get the sense that the White House is actively involved here? Have you spoken with them, and do you get the sense that they are having conversations with other senators?
I believe that a number of senators who are on the fence would benefit greatly from hearing directly from the president, the secretary of Defense, and the from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on the importance of passing the defense bill and, included in that, the repeal provision.

That would be helpful. I don't know whether they are doing that, but I've been weighing in on a series of letters and comments and outreach efforts to the White House, to other senators, and to the general public. So that would be helpful.

But you haven't spoken with the White House directly?
I have not specifically spoken to the White House.

Sen. John McCain has been very vocal about this -- calling for a new study and hearings on the Pentagon report that's about to be released -- but ultimately, how much control does he have over the fate of this?
I don't know how many votes Senator McCain could muster to prevent cloture, but that's again why I think it would be very important for Secretary Gates and the president, if they have not reached out to members of the Senate who are on the fence and urge them to move forward on the NDAA.

Do you believe Secretary Gates's most recent comments urging lawmakers to act on repeal rather than leaving it up to the courts could give certain senators courage here?
I think Secretary Gates's comments very clearly state the position of the Department of Defense. All 100 senators respect Secretary Gates and what the Department of Defense does to protect the United States of America, and I would fervently hope that the request of Secretary Gates is honored and respected, particularly in the context of the whole defense authorization bill -- we need the defense authorization to be passed. There's too much going on in the world right now to have a lack of clarity about the Defense Department and where its priorities should be.

This is just too important to fall short. If we've got to stay longer and have a robust debate on amendments, then the Senate's will should be allowed to be heard, I think. And if there are those who don't think repeal is appropriate, then they would have a chance to cast that vote. But the will of the Senate, the will of the American people, and the will of the Department of Defense shouldn't be denied.
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