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Ben Nelson’s Support Makes Congressional DADT Repeal Likely; Questions Linger

We still have no idea whether the deal struck to eventually phase out the military’s don’t ask don’t tell policy will take hold this week, but it’s looking better at the moment. Jim Webb’s apparent opposition makes the margin for error very thin in the Senate Armed Services Committee, but Ben Nelson has flipped to support.

I just received a phone call from a senior official in Sen. Ben Nelson’s office, who told me Sen. Nelson is going to vote in favor of repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the Senate Armed Services Committee later this week. Sen. Nelson is going to announce his position at a weekly media call later this morning […]

Big, big, big news. As I reported last night, Sen. Bayh is a “soft yes”, and if he fully commits, we will have the votes in hand on the Armed Services Committee.

Indeed, if Nelson supports and Robert Byrd just doesn’t show up, they’d have the votes, although Byrd could vote by proxy.

Republicans in the Senate and the House appear ready to vote in lockstep against any DADT repeal amendment and the underlying defense authorization bill, but that’s not a major concern. In the Senate, Susan Collins will vote with the Democrats in committee, giving the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster on the underlying bill (we’ll see if Webb or some other ConservaDem would actually block the defense bill over this). In the House, Armed Services Committee chair Ike Skelton’s opposition was both expected and irrelevant; the plan has always been to pass the amendment on the floor and then pass the bill. If they have the votes for the amendment, and Patrick Murphy says he does, they’ll have the votes for the bill, too.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that Robert Gates wants the President to veto the defense bill over an unrelated matter – the inclusion of weapons programs the Pentagon says they don’t need or want. The President would have a lot of countervailing pressure against a veto if a major piece of gay rights legislation is embedded in the bill.

LGBT activists credit Nancy Pelosi and Carl Levin with forcing this issue, and they’re following the lead of these two pols with the “repeal now, implement later” approach. But as Kerry Eleveld reports in an excellent article, skepticism remains:

Now we know what we get when we try to drag people across the finish line. The White House and the Pentagon apparently had no interest in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” this year even as Congressman Patrick Murphy and senators Carl Levin and Joseph Lieberman soldiered on with the mission.

Don’t take my word for it. Witness their statements.

That’s true, the Gates and Obama statements are so tepid that they drove Scott Brown and Jim Webb to OPPOSE the amendment. But this from Eleveld is more poignant:

So how did we get where we are? The White House and Gates seemingly didn’t want a vote this year. Activists wouldn’t let up. Murphy, Levin, and Lieberman put in a heroic effort to salvage repeal. And in my estimation, when Levin was one vote away in the Senate committee, White House officials realized the repeal train was leaving without them and not hopping aboard was a no-win situation. If it passed, they would get no credit; if it failed by one vote, activists would castigate them for withholding support.

This compromise could still fail, and make no mistake, the deal was brokered by the White House, which then treated it as the redheaded stepchild it never wanted in the first place. But the outcome — win or lose — now has the administration’s fingerprints on it, even though its refrain since Monday morning has been that Congress was forcing its hand […]

No matter what happens during the votes Thursday and Friday, the White House will deserve credit only after the law is repealed and replaced with a nondiscrimination policy. And if Congress votes to cede authority over the policy to the administration, President Obama will be uniquely empowered to issue an executive order that guarantees all Americans the opportunity to serve their country with integrity and honor.

I think the continued pressure from LGBT groups will again leave Obama no choice but to phase out a policy he and everyone around him have publicly opposed. But the entire enterprise is an example of the broken faith and trust between the community and the White House, and only a successful endgame will restore that.

UPDATE: Here’s Nelson’s official statement. Clearly he doesn’t want to have the responsibility of this hanging over his head anymore, so he’s happy to punt it up to the military. This gives the Senate the votes in the Armed Services Committee, and there are not 60 votes to strip out the provision on the floor. I think the Senate can get this done; the House is another matter.

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David Dayen

David Dayen