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Prospects Dim for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal

After arguing all year that he preferred Congress delay a decision on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell until after the release of the Pentagon survey on attitudes toward gays in the military, Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that the Senate should pass a legislative repeal in the lame duck, although I don’t think the quote is as airtight as everyone believes:

Q: (Laughs.) Yes, exactly, ours, [inaudible] one in Australia, too, but – yeah, U.S. election outcome. In the short run, do you see any prospect for passage of START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the lame duck? And then going forward into the spring, do you think the election outcome makes it more or less likely that President Obama will decide to pull a significant number of forces from Afghanistan in the summer?

SECRETARY GATES: Well, first of all, I hope that the Congress will – that the Senate will ratify a new START. I think it’s in our interest. Both the chairman and I have testified why we think it’s in our security interest to ratify the treaty.

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 and we’ll just have to see.

I could see some Pentagon flak coming back to everyone to clarify that Gates merely meant he would like to see repeal in the abstract and he wasn’t providing any specific timeline. Also, he was talking to reporters in Australia, where gays and lesbians can serve in the military, so that may have colored his remarks. The best you can say is that he didn’t mention that ubiquitous Pentagon survey.

But perhaps Gates was more willing to accept the terms of the question because he knows exactly what’s about to happen, contra his “we’ll have to see” comment.

The drive in Congress to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy appears all but lost for the foreseeable future, with action unlikely this year and even less likely once Republicans take charge of the House in January […]

Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and John McCain of Arizona, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, are in talks on stripping the proposed repeal and other controversial provisions from a broader defense bill, leaving the repeal with no legislative vehicle to carry it. With a repeal attached, and amid Republican complaints over the terms of the debate, the defense bill had failed to win the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle in the Senate in September […]

Moving the defense bill is also complex, especially if it includes controversial measures, because it could take two weeks or longer on the Senate floor, and the coming session is expected to last only three or four weeks.

Tommy Sears, executive director of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes a repeal, rated the chance of action “extremely low.” Richard Socarides, an activist and former adviser on gay rights to President Bill Clinton, said it was “extremely unrealistic” that Congress would take it up this year.

My guess is they’ll just punt on it, claiming that the time is needed for other measures. This is probably why the incoming commandant of the Marine Corps feels so comfortable in saying that the ban on gay service members should continue. The Marines were the most negative toward changing the policy in leaked excerpts of the Pentagon survey, a function of their leadership’s reticence (the previous commandant was also opposed, though this new leader is voicing his opinion more strongly).

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said in a statement, “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 everyday.” I agree, but that looks to be the next step, whether in the lame duck or afterwards, when the Republicans take control of the House. The courts perhaps will present a more favorable option to rid the military of this discriminatory policy. The legislative track has very nearly failed.

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David Dayen

David Dayen