What's Next For 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

Efforts to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy suffered a setback in the Senate yesterday when a procedural vote on the Defense Appropriations Bill failed to make it onto the floor. The vote on the Bill, which would repeal the policy, fell three votes shy of the sixty votes needed. The policy has been in effect for 17 years and bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Host Michel Martin speaks with Anu Bhagwati, a Marine veteran and Executive Director of the Service Women's Action Network about military members’ feelings on the Senate vote.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we hear from you, our listeners, in our weekly Backtalk segment. And we'll hear about why the leaders of the nine largest traditionally African-Americans denominations are meeting in Washington this week, something they haven't done in years. That is coming up.

But first, we want to turn to the effort to repeal the military's policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That policy has been in effect for some 19 years and it says that gays and lesbians who wish to be open about their sexual orientation may not serve.

There's been a big push in recent years to repeal the policy, but that effort seems to have been dealt a fatal blow, at least in the Senate yesterday on a procedural vote. We wanted to call Anu Bhagwati. She's a former Marine officer. Now she's executive director of the Service Women's Action Network - that's a group that supports women in the military - for her perspective on this. And she's with us now from our New York bureau. Welcome back again. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ANU BHAGWATI (Executive Director, Service Women's Action Network): Thank you, Michel, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: We're trying to understand what happened here. As we said, there's been a big push to get a vote on the bill now in the lame duck session because the Democratic majority will shrink come January. But the Democrats don't now have the 60 votes to stop a Republican filibuster, which was threatened for a number of reasons.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who does support repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, was negotiating with main Republican Senator Susan Collins about the terms under which the vote could come up. He suddenly called for a vote -the measure failed, as predicted. She says she's puzzled about why that happened. What do you know about why that happened?

Ms. BHAGWATI: Well, I agree with Senator Collins, to be frank. I don't know why Senator Reid chose to introduce the bill when, you know, his closest allies in the opposite party weren't even in the room. It was a dangerous thing to do. Senator Collins didn't have the opportunity to, you know, rally her forces and negotiate with some of those potential Republicans that would have repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and then at the end, you know, Senator Reid lost our best chance to get this repealed.

MARTIN: Why do you say that? Because there are those like Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who was formerly a Democrat, now an independent says that there really - there are the votes there to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He says that, well, the reason the Republicans say that they are threatening a filibuster is, you know, some support repeals, some don't. But they say that they want to see other bills, other matters, particularly tax matters, concluded first before they'll bring up anything else.

Ms. BHAGWATI: Well, I mean, Senator Lieberman has sort of said the same thing for years. I mean, you know, he's generally a supporter of repeal, but at the end of the day we're dealing with Congress. And, you know, we have so many gigantic issues that Congress is dealing with right now. I mean, tax cuts are swamping everything right now. I mean, we lost momentum on so many issues in the National Defense Authorization Act in addition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. You know, funding for our troops overall, you know, is out the door right now until Congress gets its act together.

Right now, you know, our Congress is essentially dysfunctional when it comes to military funding. I mean there are a bunch of programs in there specifically for our troops, for military women who are being sexually assaulted. For women who have no access to abortion rights. You know, there's a lot in there that is being sidelined while the Democrats and Republicans figure out how to compromise and how to get along.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's the policy that's been in effect for almost 20 years that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military if they wish to be open about their sexual orientation. There was a test vote yesterday in the Senate, the measure to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, failed. It was three votes shy of success. I'm talking with Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network.

So, Anu, can I ask you, we have been checking in with you from time to time about this. As we mentioned, you're a former Marine officer. One of the reasons we come to you on this is that it turns out that women are disproportionately affected by Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I'd like to ask, who are you most disappointed with at this point?

Ms. BHAGWATI: I mean, I think I'm most disappointed with the president who hasn't shown enough leadership on this issue on the get-go. You know, making a few statements here and there just isn't good enough. We'd like for him to flex some muscle when it comes to protecting our service members from discrimination and assault and so on and so forth.

MARTIN: Well, what else should he have done, if you don't mind my pressing the question? What else should he have done?

Ms. BHAGWATI: He needs to be a public visible face, you know, at every opportunity for this issue. And he isn't doing that. You know, at the end of the day, we realize that, you know, government can't do everything for us. But on this issue, it would be nice to know that he has our backs.

MARTIN: And what would be your argument to those who say that this is not the highest priority for the country right now. That getting its fiscal House in order is. What do you say to that perspective?

Ms. BHAGWATI: I mean, I respect that perspective, but when you're talking about troops being deployed in a time of war, when you're talking about tens of thousands of people who are affected by this policy, who are ending up costing taxpayers even more when they get out because of the trauma that they incur, because of discrimination while they serve. I mean at the end of the day, this is all the same issue. You know, we need to take care of our people in uniform. If you don't take care of your service members, you're going to pay twice as much for their care as veterans when they get out.

We see this across the board on every single issue, on discrimination for gays and lesbians in the military, on discrimination, sexual assault and harassment of women in the military who come out with PTSD. I mean, all of these issues are baked into the National Defense Authorization Act, right? So our, you know, the welfare of our troops is the highest priority right now.

MARTIN: All right, Anu Bhagwati is a Marine veteran. She is the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. That's a group that exists to support women serving in the military. She was with us from New York. Anu, thank you so much for taking the time today. I know it's a disappointing day for you.

Ms. BHAGWATI: Thank you, Michel.

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