NPR logo A Final Push To Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'


A Final Push To Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Gay-rights activists and gay veterans handcuff themselves to the fence of the White House during a Nov. 15 protest calling for an end to the ban on openly gay Americans serving in the military. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gay-rights activists and gay veterans handcuff themselves to the fence of the White House during a Nov. 15 protest calling for an end to the ban on openly gay Americans serving in the military.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The fate of the 17-year-old law known as "don't ask, don't tell," which bars openly gay Americans from serving in the military, is expected to be decided before Congress goes home prior to year's end.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon is set to release its 10-month review, including a survey of service members, "of the issues associated with a repeal" of the controversial law.

What's Ahead For 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

The fate of Congress' 17-year-old ban on gay Americans serving in the military will again be on the table in the coming week. Senate Democrats will try to fast-track action on a repeal measure before their legislative power takes a hit come January.

The Pentagon on Tuesday will release its DADT survey of military personnel. The Senate is set to hold hearings on the survey on Thursday and Friday. Senators are expected to vote on the annual defense appropriations bill — with language that would repeal "don't ask, don't tell" — soon after.

The nation's top military leaders are scheduled to testify Thursday and Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the survey findings. And the Senate is expected to vote on a measure to scrap DADT included in the language of its annual defense spending bill.

For repeal supporters, including President Obama, congressional Democrats and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, this is the ultimate crunch time — a race to beat the clock before a new Congress in January brings an influx of conservative Republican members far more resistant to jettisoning the controversial law.

"We believe we still have a shot here — and we're very conscious of the timeline," says Trevor Thomas of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which assists Americans affected by the military ban.

"It's all hands on deck," Thomas says. "We're very conscious that incoming House Speaker John Boehner will not move repeal in the House of Representatives for years to come."

Opponents of repeal — most prominently Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona — have already begun pushing back on the highly anticipated Obama-ordered Pentagon report. They have been questioning the Pentagon's survey methods and pointing to military leaders who have claimed that unit cohesion and readiness would be harmed by rolling back the measure.

McCain's position: "We need a thorough and complete study of the effects — not how to implement a repeal but the effects on morale and battle effectiveness," he said during a recent television appearance, adding: "We need to look at whether it's the kind of study we wanted."

Clock Ticking

The current House, controlled by Democrats until the end of the year, has already approved repeal as part of its defense bill package. Repeal is now up to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where leaders have been struggling to secure enough support from moderate Republicans to get to the 60 votes needed to beat back GOP threats of a filibuster.

A similar effort failed in September, with McCain serving as the point man for opposition.

McCain, the ranking Armed Services Committee member, said in 2006 that he would endorse repeal the "day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy.' " But the 2008 Republican presidential nominee has doubled down on opposition, despite Gates' position and that of Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

Mullen has called repeal "the right thing to do" and told Congress early this year that enforcing DADT forces service members to "lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

Both Gates and Mullen are scheduled to testify before the Armed Services Committee this week, as are the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

A copy of a draft of the Pentagon's findings leaked earlier this month to The Washington Post suggested that 70 percent of service members surveyed about repeal said allowing gays to serve openly would not have much of an effect on the military.

The Pentagon has said that it received more than 115,000 responses from the 400,000 surveys it distributed, or about a 28 percent response rate.

Military leaders reportedly have been reviewing the report in recent weeks, and providing input for the final version.

Will It Matter?

But with McCain's stiff resistance, and moderate Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine demanding a full hearing on the measure as part of the defense bill, it remains unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can corral enough support for repeal.

All eyes will be on the Armed Services Committee hearings Thursday and Friday to gauge sentiment and support, and on Reid and whether he can provide moderate Republicans enough debate time and opportunity for amendments to bring them around.

"We believe that if Republicans are given a reasonable number of amendments, the moderate Republicans will vote to proceed to the bill," said one Senate staffer closely involved in the issue.

Once those 60 votes are secured to proceed with a defense authorization bill that includes repeal, it would take 60 votes from opponents of repeal to remove it from the measure.

"The key thing to watch is how Republicans react to the report," says Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has led research into gay service in the military. "I think there is a potentially emerging divide between Sen. McCain and other potentially more moderate senators."

If repeal efforts go off track, advocates say they are prepared to shift their fight to the courts, where other DADT challenges are already in the works.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network says that it is prepared to file suit in federal court asking for the reinstatement of gay service members who have been discharged because of their sexual orientation.

Repeal advocates, however, would prefer to see Congress overturn a law it passed during the Clinton administration.

"I think it will be difficult for the military chiefs to repudiate or reject findings of the report," says Aubrey Sarvis, the network's head. "If they cannot support the process that was used as well as the integrity of the Pentagon report, I fail to understand how they can continue to lead the service they represent."