Senate Democrats Push For 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal

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A lame-duck showdown is looming over a push to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the 1993 law that bars gays from serving openly in the military. A much-anticipated Pentagon study on the possible impact of a repeal is to be released Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he'll hold a vote in the lame-duck session on the defense policy bill, which includes a DADT repeal. Leading the effort to block it is the man President Obama defeated two years ago, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another issue that's politically tough: "don't ask, don't tell." That, of course, is the policy that bars openly gay people from serving in the military. The House has already approved the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," but Senate Republicans have said they don't want to take action before the Pentagon finishes a review of the policy. That study will be made public next week. Still, it looks unlikely that Republicans will let it sail through. In a lame duck session, it's going to be a struggle.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: The Senate's most vocal opponent to a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is the man President Obama defeated two years ago, Arizona's John McCain. He's the Armed Services Committee's top Republican, and when that panel added the repeal to its big annual defense policy bill earlier this year, McCain voted against it. When Democrats tried bringing that bill up for a vote in the full Senate two months ago, McCain led the filibuster that blocked it.

At the time, he insisted he was not opposed to a full debate in the Senate on whether to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): What I am opposed to is bringing up the defense bill now before the Defense Department has concluded its survey of our men and women in uniform, which gives them a chance to tell us their views about "don't ask, don't tell."

WELNA: Since then, the study has been completed and the Washington Post has reported the survey found more than two out of three service members said allowing gays to serve openly in the military would either be positive or cause no harm. In an interview before leaving Washington last week, McCain derided the same Pentagon study he'd earlier advocated.

Sen. MCCAIN: It's a bogus study. The study was - should have been to assess the impact on morale and battle effectiveness and retention of repeal. The study actually, the words as I read, were how to implement the repeal.

WELNA: But one of the Pentagon's study's co-authors told the Armed Services Committee last week it was not only, as McCain contends, about how to implement a repeal, Army General Carter Ham said he'd also received precise instructions from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

General CARTER HAM (U.S. Army): To assess the impacts upon effectiveness, readiness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention, should repeal occur.

WELNA: In a testy exchange with General Ham at the hearing, McCain raised questions about the massive survey gauging service members' views on a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

Sen. MCCAIN: The survey went out to 400,000 military personnel, is that correct?

Gen. HAM: That's correct, senator.

Sen. MCCAIN: And how many - what percent responded?

Gen. HAM: Senator McCain, we received a little over 115,000 responses.

Sen. MCCAIN: Like 25 percent?

Gen. HAM: A little more - about 28, sir.

WELNA: Experts consider such a response rate quite adequate for an accurate survey, but McCain nonetheless opposes taking up the Defense Authorization Bill in the lame duck session if it includes a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

Do you plan to block this from being considered?

Mr. MCCAIN: Of course.

WELNA: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he'll bring up that defense bill after the Pentagon study is released Tuesday and a hearing next Thursday on its findings by the Armed Services Committee.

Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman is the chief sponsor of the repeal measure. He's also a close friend of McCain's. He says he's tried changing his friend's mind on "don't ask, don't tell."

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): I've had discussions. I've had no success. It's as simple as that.

WELNA: But Lieberman says some Senate Republicans are willing now to let the defense bill come up for consideration. One of them is Maine's Susan Collins. She says she'll do so if the majority leader allows both a full debate on the bill and amendments to its provisions, including the repeal.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): So far, however, Senator Reid has not indicated a willingness to allow the kind of traditional consideration of the defense bill that we have always had in the Senate.

WELNA: New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen considers such demands sabotage.

Senator JEANNE SHAHEEN (Democrat, New Hampshire): This is not about how many amendments are we going to do or how long we're going to debate; this is about those who oppose this policy wanting to kill it and taking every opportunity they can and using the Senate rules to try and do that.

WELNA: With their big majorities in both chambers about to vanish, Democrats fear it could be years before there's a chance like the one they have now at consigning "don't ask, don't tell" to history.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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