The Senate dealt a near-fatal blow to “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal Thursday when it failed to advance the bill to which the measure was attached, the National Defense Authorization Act, by a vote of 57-40.
But immediately following the action, Senators Joe Lieberman, Mark Udall, and Susan Collins breathed new life into the effort by vowing to introduce a bipartisan stand-alone repeal bill and push it through before the end of the year.
Senator Lieberman tweeted out that Majority Leader Reid had agreed to bring the freestanding bill to the Senate floor for a vote before the session ends. Details were still forthcoming at the time of this post.
Minutes after the vote, Udall said from the Senate floor that he would be willing to work through the holidays to get a repeal measure passed and that he would encourage his colleagues to join him.
Two major repeal groups, the Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, moved quickly to signal their support for an alternative route.
“We need to be on the bill that moves, period. We support Senator Lieberman’s plan to move a standalone bill," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of SLDN. "The Senate and the president must remain in session and in Washington to find another path for repeal to get done in the lame-duck."
A White House spokesman said the administration was also open to the new push.
"The White House is willing to explore all legislative options to reach this goal during the lame duck session," Shin Inouye said.
The broader defense authorization bill failed after a dramatic exchange between Senate majority leader Harry Reid and Republican senator Susan Collins.
Reid, Collins, and Lieberman devoted much of Wednesday to intense last-minute discussions trying to agree on an amendment process that would satisfy both parties. But talks were idle Thursday, and Reid called the vote around 3:30 p.m., in what seemed to be a surprising turn to Collins.
“I think there was a clear path to be able to get this bill done,” Collins said from the Senate floor, noting that she had “rushed” there from a meeting when she heard the vote was proceeding. “I am perplexed and frustrated that this particular bill is going to become a victim of politics.”
According to Senate aides, Reid offered Collins 15 amendments, 10 for the GOP, five for Democrats, to which Collins agreed. The rub was the amount of time that each amendment would be debated, with Reid wanting an hour for the vast majority and Collins requesting more time.
From the Senate floor, Collins tried to nail Reid down on the terms of debate, but Reid would not budge, saying only that he would “fill the tree” — a phrase suggesting that he would fill the amendment structure but not defining how he would do it.
Collins ultimately voted for the bill anyway, but she could not bring any other Republican senators with her. Newly elected West Virginia senator Joe Manchin was the sole Democrat to vote against the bill.
Republican senators Sam Brownback of Kansas and John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas did not submit their votes.
The legislation is not necessarily done for the year, but the narrow window that once existed now seems a hairsbreadth away from shut.
Sen. Carl Levin noted from the floor Thursday morning that reconciling the Senate and House versions of the NDAA, once passed, usually takes an average of 75 days. If the motion to advance the defense bill failed, he said, the Senate would not be able to finish the legislation before year’s end.
“If we don't proceed on this bill this week, then invoking cloture sometime next week, even if we can do it, it would be a symbolic victory,” Levin said. “I don't believe that there would be enough time to hammer out a final bill before the end of this session.”
Many repeal advocates tagged both parties with blame. When the tenuous negotiations looked to be going south on the amendment deal around 10:30 a.m., Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz issued a statement saying, “If senators move forward with a vote on NDAA before a deal has been solidified, the vote will fail and all key players will share the responsibility.”
Following the vote, one repeal advocate who has worked closely on the issue and spoke on the condition of anonymity, called the vote “a colossal failure” in leadership on the part of Sen. Harry Reid.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United said the vote “was a major failure on the part of the Senate” to simply do its job and pass an annual defense authorization bill. “Politics prevailed over responsibility today,” he said.
And the Human Rights Campaign called on the president “to immediately use his powers as commander in chief to issue a stop-loss order halting discharges.”