'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Holds Up Defense Policy Bill

Each year, Congress approves a bill that spells out the national defense policy. But this year, the National Defense Authorization Act is being held up. Senate Republicans object to one provision — the one that would allow the Pentagon to end the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy. It keeps gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Issues involving gays and lesbians are not on the ballot this fall, but they are affecting the political debate. Gay rights are a tricky issue for both Republicans and Democrats, as we'll hear in a moment. We begin in the Senate, where a single provision is holding up a big Defense policy bill. Senate Republicans object to that provision, the one that would allow the Pentagon to end the policy called Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried for the second time in two months to bring up the policy-setting Defense Authorization bill. And, just as he did last time, John McCain, who's the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee that created the bill, said no.

INSKEEP: I reserve the right to object and I will object.

WELNA: McCain voted against the Defense bill when his committee passed it in May. That was because of the provision in it, allowing the Pentagon to do away with Don't Ask, Don't Tell. McCain says Congress should do nothing until a Pentagon study is finished in December, on the impact of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

INSKEEP: Why couldn't we have done what our service chiefs want and what our senior enlisted people want, and that is an assessment of battle effectiveness and morale of repeal of it, and then decide to whether to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

WELNA: But Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee points out that repeal would actually depend on the President, the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All three have said they favor repeal, but they would first have to certify that they have dually considered the Pentagon study and that rules have been put in place for its implementation that will not undermine the military. Levin says that's what the provision on Don't Ask, Don't Tell really calls for.

INSKEEP: It does not repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I wish it did but it doesn't. It simply authorizes the ending of the policy if there's a certification that doing so would not undermine the morale of our troops.

WELNA: A Pentagon working group is analyzing a massive survey of troops and their spouses done over the summer.

Alex Nicholson heads the pro-repeal group, Servicemembers United. He says the working group's mandate has been to ensure that the implementation of a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell works smoothly.

WERTHEIMER: There's not been the entire time to collect data to determine whether or not Congress should actually repeal. So Senator McCain has been trying a lot of things to try to change the mission of the working group, expand it to determine if repeal should take place and not just contingency planning for when it takes place.

WELNA: It would take 60 votes today for the Senate to take up the Defense bill and that's why one person in particular has been urging people to call their senators.

LADY GAGA: My name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, also known as Lady Gaga.

WELNA: Lady Gaga went to Maine yesterday in a bid to sway the votes of that states' two Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of whom remain uncommitted. Earlier, the pop singer recorded herself, calling her own senator, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer.

GAGA: I'm calling to ask the senator to vote with Senators Harry Reid and Carl Levin to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and oppose John McCain's shameless filibuster.

WELNA: That kind of pressure has failed to sway South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. He says even with the country at war he intends to vote to block the Defense bill.

INSKEEP: If we let this go now then there will be no end to it. The military would be better served not having this bill passed, the Authorization bill, than let it to be used as a political football the way it's being used. It would be better served to have input on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell before we repeal it.

WELNA: Armed Services Chairman Levin says it would be one thing if Republicans filibustered the Defense bill itself. It's quite another, he says, to filibuster the motion to simply bring it up for debate.

INSKEEP: You are preventing any debate on the bill, and I'm afraid that's more and more what's going on around the Senate and I think it's led to some real frustrations.

WELNA: Levin says he has no idea whether there will be the 60 votes to end the GOP filibuster and begin debate on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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