Repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Faces Hurdles

Proponents of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy — the measure that bans gays from serving openly in the military, won two key votes in Congress last week. The repeal is part of the defense policy bill the House passed Friday. It also became part of the Senate's version. But legislative hurdles remain, and the repeal initiative faces barriers beyond Congress.

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Those who want to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" won two key votes in Congress last week. There are still hurdles to changing the law that now bans gays from serving openly in the military and there are barriers beyond Congress as well. NPR's David Welna lays them out for us now.

DAVID WELNA: Just hours after the House of Representatives approved a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" late last week, its members voted on the annual defense policy bill to which the measure had been added.

Unidentified Man: The bill has passed.

(Soundbite of gavel hitting)

WELNA: That was perhaps the easiest hurdle to cross for those backing the repeal. The more slow-moving Senate may be another story. The provision was also added last week to the Senate's version of the defense authorization bill, but only at the committee level. Asked when the full Senate might take up that bill, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin appeared uncertain.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I would hope that we can get this to the floor in the next work period before the August recess, but that's going to be up to our leader.

WELNA: That would be majority leader Harry Reid. Here's what he had to say about bringing up that bill.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Later.

WELNA: Reid then went through a litany of other legislation already pending in the Senate.

Senator REID: So that's why I say we're going to do the defense authorization bill later. It's something we have to do and we'll get it done. But it just -I can't give you a definite time.

WELNA: Reid faces a tough reelection bid next and may be reluctant to engage, anytime soon, in a floor fight the Republicans are promising over "don't ask, don't tell." That policy will be an issue as well in the upcoming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. She sharply criticized "don't ask, don't tell" as dean of Harvard's law school. Brown University congressional expert Wendy Schiller says Democrats have reason to proceed with caution.

Professor WENDY SCHILLER (Political Science, Brown University): That's what they have to figure out. Is this the tag line? Is this what they want voters to know that they're doing over the Memorial Day holiday and the next month, given that there are other issues that to voters seem much more pressing, like immigration and the economy?

WELNA: There are also hurdles beyond Congress. The Pentagon has to carry out a survey this summer of service members for a study due in December on the impact of a repeal. New Jersey House Democrat Rob Andrews says much will turn on the results of that study.

Representative ROB ANDREWS (Democrat, New Jersey): If after that process the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff believe that the evidence shows that implementation of the repeal would undercut the readiness or effectiveness of our troops, they will not certify that the policy should be put into effect and it won't be.

WELNA: Republicans scoff at the notion that the repeal might not be certified. Here's Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

Senator ROGER WICKER (Republican, Mississippi): Giving the president and the two military people who are most answerable to him the authority to make this decision and pretend that they might decide against it is a mockery and it's a fig leaf.

WELNA: But such certification, says Armed Services Chairman Levin, would not automatically mean gays could serve openly in the military.

Senator LEVIN: Even if we did get the certification, which I hope we do and expect we will, and even if we then say, ok, you've met that test and now it's in your hands, it still requires action by the military to act on their own regulations, their own prohibitions.

WELNA: Because while Congress may repeal the law forcing the expulsion of openly gay service members, it's stopping short of banning such discrimination in the military.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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