'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Set For Key Vote Advocates for repeal of the law banning openly gay men and women from serving in the military are hunting for votes in the Senate, where opponents are threatening to block action on a defense bill if necessary.
NPR logo 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Set For Key Vote

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Set For Key Vote

The move to repeal a 17-year-old law barring openly gay Americans from serving in the military faces a crucial test Tuesday when senators are scheduled to vote on the annual defense authorization bill, which includes a provision to end the practice.

Its passage remains uncertain as the day approaches.

Republican senators, led by ranking Armed Services Committee member John McCain of Arizona, have threatened to block passage of the bill if the repeal language and an immigration-related amendment remain in the $726 billion measure.

The immigration measure, known as the "DREAM Act," would allow undocumented immigrant students who have been in the U.S. since childhood to enlist in the military, go to college and earn citizenship.

McCain, in a speech from the Senate floor this week, accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of scheduling the vote in advance of November's election to promote the Democrats' social agenda, turning debate on the annual Defense Department funding bill into a "political football."

Boots are left behind after former Marine Cpl. Evelyn Thomas and former Navy Seaman Jose Rodriguez's visit to the office of Sen. James Webb (D-VA) on Friday. They want the senator to support repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Repeal advocates, meanwhile, have been scrambling to line up the 60 votes needed to stymie GOP efforts to block the showdown vote on the law, known as "don't ask, don't tell.”

The House in May endorsed repeal of the measure in its defense authorization bill.

Scrambling For Support

Activists have enlisted pop star Lady Gaga to encourage her fans to inundate Capitol Hill with pro-repeal messages. On Friday, she posted a 7 1/2 minute video message on YouTube, pushing for don't ask, don't tell's repeal.

Pro-repeal advocates also showed up at a recent Armed Services Committee meeting holding signs urging McCain to support the end of don't ask, don't tell. And a handful of gay service members discharged under the policy targeted the office of Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a former secretary of the Navy, who has previously voted against repeal.

They left behind their combat boots.

Webb, like McCain, has said he wants action on repeal to wait until a Defense Department review of how it would be implemented is completed. That review is due on or before Dec. 1.

But Democrats pushing for the rollback argue that the Senate measure only sets repeal in motion: If passed, it would have to be reconciled with the House legislation. If and when that occurs, a defense bill with repeal language would have to be signed by President Obama.

And when the Defense Department review is completed, the repeal language would have to be certified again with signatures from Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

All have expressed support for repeal.

The law’s end, experts say, would only come 60 days after that signed certificate is sent to the Armed Services Committee.

"All eyes are now on Congress, but the real question is whether the Obama administration is going to exercise leadership in December when the review report comes out," says Aaron Belkin of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Belkin heads the university's Palm Center, a public policy think tank that has been at the forefront of civil rights efforts on behalf of gay Americans.

"What will happen if the [military] service chiefs insist they can’t manage the transition?" Belkin says. "That will be the game — delaying certification, delaying implementation."

Parallel Movement

The high-profile Capitol Hill debate comes on the heels of a court victory for a gay Republican group that challenged the constitutionality of don't ask, don't tell.

A U.S. District Court judge in California found the law unconstitutional, and the Log Cabin Republicans have subsequently petitioned the court to ban enforcement of the policy. The Obama administration is expected to appeal the judge's ruling, under its obligation to defend federal statutes, though not to pursue it vigorously.

"If the administration does appeal it may be not only because they feel they have a responsibility," Belkin says, "but they also may not want to alienate Secretary Gates."

Allowing a district court judge to, in effect, end the policy, might be stepping on Gates.

Vote Counting

Vice President Biden this week said that Democrats were only five senators short of having the votes to pass the measure.

But activists on Friday said they remained focused on gaining support from five Republican and two Democratic senators — suggesting that Biden’s estimate was optimistic. Those senators are Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and George Voinovich of Ohio; and Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Webb of Virginia.

"The vote will be close, and the reality is that no one knows with any certainty — including Reid and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell —  how this is going to turn out," says Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

"But this is the closest it's been to resolution in 17 years."