"Don't Ask" Repeal Deal Faces Pushback, Gains Key Backer


Updated 5:15 p.m. Eastern

Earlier this week, gay rights groups, congressional leaders and the White House worked out a deal to pass a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

The plan was this: The House and Senate would vote this week to include repeal as part of the (essential) defense authorization bill, which authorizes billions in spending for American troops. It would not go into effect, however, until (1) a Pentagon study on the impact of repeal is finished on December 1st, and (2) President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen approve moving forward based on the study's findings.

That way, the thinking went, they could pass repeal before expected Democratic losses in the November midterm elections - but not enact it until after the Pentagon study is finished. The hope was to get repeal attached to the bill in both houses of Congress before the Memorial Day recess.

Yet not long after the deal became public, momentum seemed to shift away from it getting done. This morning, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, put out a statement that he does "not support the idea of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell before our military members and commanders complete their review."

"This so-called compromise would repeal the legislation first then receive input from the military," he said. "This is not the proper way to change any policy, particularly something as controversial as Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

This afternoon, Sen. John McCain, an opponent of repeal, released letters from the heads of the Army, Marines, Air Force, and Navy opposing the repeal plan, the Weekly Standard reports.

"...repealing the law before the completion of the review will be seen by the men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views before moving forward," said Army General George W. Casey, Jr.

The Armed Services Committee is chaired by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, a strong proponent of repeal, who is seeking to attach the "don't ask" repeal language to the defense bill as an amendment. It is not clear, however, that he has the 15 votes he needs to do so.

He got some good news today, however: Moderate Democrat Ben Nelson, who yesterday declined to offer his support for the deal, said today he would back it.

The deal "bases implementation of the repeal on the Pentagon's review and a determination by our military leaders that repeal is consistent with military readiness and effectiveness, and that the Pentagon has prepared the necessary regulations to make the changes," Nelson said in a statement. 

He added: "In a military which values honesty and integrity, this policy encourages deceit."

In another piece of good news for opponents of the Clinton-era policy, moderate Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said yesterday that she would support the measure.

But their view is not shared by Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who said yesterday he sees "no reason for the political process to pre-empt" the Pentagon study.

Moderate Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown agreed, saying he does "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."

The lawmakers may have been taken cues from Gates, the defense secretary, who yesterday signaled his frustration with the repeal plan. While Mullen has been a strong proponent of repeal, calling it the "right thing to do," Gates has resisted taking a position on the issue.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said yesterday that "the Secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment" - but he added that Gates was far from happy with it.

"Secretary Gates continues to believe that ideally the DOD review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell law," he said. 

Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Gates' request to wait until the Pentagon review is completed is "reasonable and responsible."

Yet in his statement on supporting the plan, Nelson wrote that "I spoke to Secretary Gates and he advised that while he preferred waiting until the study is completed, he can live with this compromise."

At a fundraiser in California last night, President Obama was heckled by a protester pushing him to move faster to repeal the policy, and military veterans have chained themselves to the White House fence to push for legislative action.

The president did not bring up the repeal issue during a closed-door meeting with Republican senators yesterday, according to sources at the meeting.