Sen. Joe Lieberman said Thursday that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" as part of the National Defense Authorization Act is no longer a question of votes, it's a question of process.
"I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization with the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' if only there will be a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process, in other words, whether we'll take enough time to do it," Lieberman told reporters at a press conference, naming GOP senators Susan Collins and Richard Lugar as yes votes. "Time is an inexcusable reason not to get this done."
Lieberman, an independent, was flanked by 12 of his Democratic colleagues -- a core group that seemed intent on urging the Democratic leadership to allow enough room in the Senate schedule for a debate that would be acceptable to Republicans. The senators talked about working over the weekends, and Sen. Mark Udall offered to go straight through until Christmas Eve.
Lieberman noted that two items could be negotiated by Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell -- the number of amendments to be considered and the amount of time for debate on those amendments.
Full and open debate on the bill could take as long as two weeks, but an agreement between Reid and McConnell could shave that down to just one week. Regardless, given that other bills will eat up some of the remaining days, providing some sort of open amendment process will likely require that senators stay past the targeted adjournment date of December 10 until at least December 17.
Lieberman also noted that the NDAA is "several hundred pages long" and chock-full of "critically necessary" items for the military.
"How are you going to explain to a soldier or a family that we didn't authorize the benefits they deserve because we wanted to go home?" he said.
Asked how many amendments would be "fair," Lieberman responded, "It's hard to put a number on it now, and that's what I hope will be negotiated and we're going to do our best to encourage Senator Reid to reach out to allow a somewhat larger number [of amendments]."
Lieberman was joined at the press conference by senators Barbara Boxer, Roland Burris, Ben Cardin, Chris Coons, Diane Feinstein, Al Franken, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Patrick Leahy, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Udall, and Ron Wyden.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the most interesting development over the past several days is "the determination of a core group of senators to get repeal done this year."
"With Chairman [Carl] Levin and Senator Lieberman's commitment and with the determination of the president and Majority Leader Reid to work with key Republican senators, we're alive and we can get this done this year," Sarvis said.
Earlier in the day, Gen. Carter Ham, cochair of the Pentagon's working group study, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that upcoming report on repeal is the most thorough he has ever seen on a personnel issue.
"As far as I can tell, this is the most comprehensive assessment of a personnel policy matter that the Department of Defense has conducted," Ham said.
Sen. John McCain, who vehemently opposes repeal, tried to undercut its credibility by noting that only about 25% of about 400,000 troops had responded to the survey on repeal that forms a portion of the study.
But Ham corrected McCain, saying the total was closer to 28%, a little over 115,000 respondents, and called the survey "statistically sound and analytically rigorous."
Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat who has taken a cautious approach to repealing the policy, seconded Ham's assertion.
"Having spent five years in the Pentagon, I can't remember a study on this type of issue that has been done with this sort of care," he said. "So it's going to be a very important study for us to look at and examine."
Preliminary reports about the study suggest that it concludes repeal poses "minimal risk" even during a time of war.
Ham said he doubted the study would be released before December 1 because the working group was waiting on the military's service chiefs to review it and provide their assessments, but Levin urged Ham to make "every effort" to deliver the study early.
Levin said Wednesday that he would be scheduling hearings on the study "during the first few days of December" before Reid scheduled a vote on the motion to debate the larger defense bill.
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