Congress In No Rush To Lift 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

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Sen. Carl Levin talks with reporters about the economic stimulus legislation on Feb. 6. i

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks with reporters Feb. 6 about the economic stimulus legislation. Given the economic crisis and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Levin says he doesn't think repealing the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" law will be an early priority for lawmakers. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Sen. Carl Levin talks with reporters about the economic stimulus legislation on Feb. 6.

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks with reporters Feb. 6 about the economic stimulus legislation. Given the economic crisis and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Levin says he doesn't think repealing the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" law will be an early priority for lawmakers.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, pictured in 2007, is sponsoring legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." i

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), shown in September 2007, is sponsoring legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." But even she concedes it may take time for any movement on it. Michal Dolezal/AP/CTK hide caption

itoggle caption Michal Dolezal/AP/CTK
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, pictured in 2007, is sponsoring legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), shown in September 2007, is sponsoring legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." But even she concedes it may take time for any movement on it.

Michal Dolezal/AP/CTK

For those anxious for the Clinton-era law that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military to be repealed, the wait may be longer than expected.

While he was on the campaign trail, President Obama promised to work to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." And in January, on the eve of becoming White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs reiterated that Obama would repeal the law.

But Obama can't simply sign an executive order to overturn the law — he has to persuade Congress to change it.

And Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he does not expect the issue to be an early priority for lawmakers.

"I'm going to be working with colleagues to see how much support there is for it," Levin says. "And where along the process we can take that issue up. I just don't think we can give that a high priority, given the situation that we face," like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic meltdown.

Even the staunchest supporters of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" concede they may have to wait.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), who is sponsoring legislation as early as next week in the House to lift the ban, says it's a significant priority, but not necessarily while Congress is "triaging the effects of very bad tax policy from the Bush administration," and "people are losing their homes and their jobs."

Are Military Leaders Ready?

Another question is whether military leaders are ready to see the law repealed.

Since it was passed in 1993, more than two dozen retired admirals and generals have come forward to say it should be repealed, including John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Colin Powell, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues that attitudes have evolved since his days on active duty. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there's no question the armed forces will follow the lead of Congress and their commander in chief.

" 'Don't ask, don't tell' is law — it is a political decision," Gates says. "And if the law changes, we will comply with the law."

But Rep. Joe Wilson, the top Republican for personnel matters on the House Armed Services Committee, says he agrees with a statement the Pentagon issued last summer that says the Defense Department does not advocate overturning "don't ask, don't tell."

"Executing a change in law at this time would be problematic, given the intense engagement of our leaders and our forces in prosecuting the global war on terror," the statement says.

"And what I would tell you is that it is a policy that appears to be working," Wilson says.

Is It Really A Timing Issue?

The view that the current policy is working is still widely held among both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. They make the argument that with wars ongoing in Afghanistan and Iraq, now is not the best time to reignite a controversial, possibly disruptive debate within the military.

But Aubrey Sarvis, director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, who is fighting to overturn the law, says it's doable this year. Sarvis says he's talking regularly with Obama's staff and encouraging them to keep their word.

And Tauscher says the argument about igniting a controversial debate is nonsense.

"I would only say that it is always the right time to right a wrong," she says. "And this has been a very big wrong."

The congresswoman calls repealing the law "the last big piece of civil rights legislation left."

Tauscher plans to introduce the legislation, but she's still waiting to see when the Obama White House will start fighting to allow gays to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.

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