Midshipmen parade at the U.S. Naval Academy. The debate over whether gays should be able to openly serve in the U.S. military is headed toward a crucial Senate committee vote this week.
Midshipmen parade at the U.S. Naval Academy. The debate over whether gays should be able to openly serve in the U.S. military is headed toward a crucial Senate committee vote this week. Jacquelyn Martin/AP
A deal between the White House and congressional leaders that could end the 17-year-old federal law banning openly gay Americans from serving in the military was hailed by rights advocates Tuesday as a "game changer."
But the fate of the proposed compromise remains uncertain. Advocates say they are still fighting for the final votes needed to pass the measure out of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
In the House, the measure is expected to be offered from the floor this week.
"It's tight, but I believe we'll get there," says Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which represents military members affected by the controversial "don''t ask, don't tell" policy.
The compromise, which would delay implementation of the repeal until the Pentagon finishes its review of the proposal in December, would appear as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill. If all goes as its proponents plan, the measure will be voted on by both the House and the Senate this week. Democrats have a 78-vote edge in the House, and they control the Senate 59-41.
Last-Minute Scramble For Votes
Proponents of ending the controversial don't ask, don't tell law say they had hoped that strong statements of support for the deal from the White House and the Pentagon would help bring around Armed Services Committee senators — including Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Robert Byrd of West Virginia — whose votes are crucial to passage.
The high-level endorsements, however, came with caveats. The president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates both said, in prepared statements, that they accept the amendment's language but would have preferred that Congress delay a repeal vote until the military finishes its review of how the change would affect its operations.
That review, which includes town hall meetings and a pending survey of tens of thousands of military members and their families, is scheduled to be completed in December.
Still, Sarvis and others say that they hope the Pentagon's buy-in, however carefully parsed, will persuade Nelson, who has said in the past that he'll vote against repeal, and Byrd, who has not staked out a position, to support the legislation.
Activists were disappointed Tuesday when the newest committee member, Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican considered a possible "yes" vote, said he would not support the amendment.
In a statement released to The Boston Globe, Brown said that he is "keeping an open mind, but I do not support moving ahead until I am able to finish my review, the Pentagon completes its study, and we can be assured that a new policy can be implemented without jeopardizing the mission of our military."
Democratic vote counters say that they don't expect support from committee member Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, former Marine and secretary of the Navy during the later years of the Reagan administration. In a statement Tuesday, Webb said he supports the Pentagon's review of don't ask, don't tell and added that "I see no reason for the political process to pre-empt it."
But on-the-fence Armed Services Committee members Evan Bayh of Indiana and Bill Nelson of Florida, both Democrats, have been moved by activists to the committee's "yes" column (a spokesman for Nelson confirmed late Tuesday that the senator will support the amendment). Republican member Susan Collins of Maine has also said she will vote in favor of the amendment.
Democrats have a 16-12 voting edge in the committee. Republicans note that it's obviously not going to be easy to hold together the 15-vote majority needed to pass the amendment out of the 28-member committee if some senators, such as Webb, Byrd and Nelson of Nebraska aren't sure "yes" votes. Proponents are confident, but even they were saying late Tuesday that they still had votes to pin down. Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a committee member who caucuses with Democrats, told Fox News that he's "optimistic we're going to get this done this year."
The committee's ranking member and Lieberman pal John McCain, an Arizona Republican locked in a tough primary battle, said he won't endorse the measure. The Vietnam veteran in previous years had said he would support changing the policy if military leaders agreed.
Nebraska's Nelson is expected to announce his intentions on Wednesday.
Amid the celebration by supporters of ending don't ask, don't tell, there was some activist grumbling Tuesday about conditions of the compromise, including the delay in implementing repeal if it passes, and authorizing the president and the Pentagon to "certify" the new policies.
The deal provides the gay community with something less than the legislation it had been promoting — the original Military Readiness Enhancement Act, first introduced in Congress five years ago. It would have repealed don't ask, don't tell and replaced it with new language prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
It would also allow military personnel previously discharged because of their sexual orientation to apply to rejoin the armed forces.
But Aaron Belkin spoke for most gay-rights activists in characterizing the compromise as a "dismantling of don't ask, don't tell — and what we've been waiting for for 17 years."
"The community had gathered around the idea of compromise; the idea that it was not viable to get the full Military Readiness Enhancement Act language," said Belkin, who heads the Palm Center, based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "And that opened doors." The center has been researching the experience of sexual minorities in the military.
Also crucial to movement on the amendment he said, was the looming midterm election — when Democrats are expected to lose members in both the House and the Senate.
"There was a growing realization that the window of opportunity could be in danger," said Belkin, who had long counted himself among skeptics that repeal — or even a vote on repeal — would occur this quickly.
"I didn't think 2010 was going to be a year for progress," he said. "I didn't think that the Democrats would want to put their members — like the conservative House Blue Dogs — in the position of having to take a tough vote."
Said Allison Herwitt of the pro-gay-rights Human Rights Campaign: "It's been a roller coaster for the past year."