The Senate — leery of being steamrolled into a pre-election vote on abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the Pentagon completes its study on the impact of its repeal — decided Tuesday against lifting the 17-year-old law. Senators voted 56-43, failing to get the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster and allow an actual vote on ending the ban.
Even pop chanteuse Lady Gaga’s trek to Maine on Monday in a last-ditch effort to convince Maine’s two moderate GOP senators to back repeal fell short. While both of the Maine lawmakers cited political reasons for their opposition, their “no” votes nonetheless helped doom pro-repeal hopes. Both Arkansas Democrats, Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, sided with all 40 Republicans present in voting “no” (Majority Leader Harry Reid changed his vote to “no” at the last minute in a procedural move that lets him call for a revote). Backers of repeal say they still have a “slim shot” of prevailing in the lame-duck session following the Nov. 2 elections, and after the completion of the Pentagon study, due Dec. 1, into the impact of lifting the ban.
Tuesday’s wound was, in part, self-inflicted — seeming to play politics with the issue while the nation is waging two wars gave those on the fence a reason to oppose ending the ban. Senator John McCain, Arizona Republican and former Navy pilot, said the vote had the smell of partisan politics. “One can only draw the conclusion that this is all about elections” — energizing gay voters — the senior Republican on the armed services committee said. “Not about the welfare, the well-being, the morale and the battle effectiveness of the men and women who are laying it on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan today.”
Some Pentagon officials believe repeal would have been a done deal if the political calendar hadn’t intruded. Gay advocates agree, and also believe repeal could have happened if — like dozens of militaries around the world — the U.S. simply dropped the ban and commanded its troops to follow orders, as it did when President Harry Truman integrated the military in 1948.
But several elements combined into a perfect storm that dashed the effort to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:
— First of all, there was concern that Majority Leader Reid’s push for the vote was driven by Democratic fears that their effort to end the ban — a key promise of their party’s leader, President Obama — will be more difficult after the election, when their party is expected to lose seats in both houses of Congress. The House voted in May to lift the ban. “Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine said on the floor. Her opposition was especially striking, because she was the only GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to vote to repeal the law in May.
— That rush to repeal clashed with the Pentagon’s own plan for studying the impact of lifting the ban — including a broad survey of military personnel and their families — which isn’t due until December. Even though the law requires that Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have to certify that ending the ban won’t hurt military readiness, some Pentagon officials view the vote as premature. McCain read comments from the four service chiefs expressing their opposition to Congress voting for repeal before the Pentagon finishes its study of the ramifications of the change. “It couldn’t be more clear what our uniformed service chiefs are saying — complete this review before repealing the law,” he told his colleagues on the Senate floor. Few moderate lawmakers want to vote against the expressed wishes of the military’s uniformed leadership in a time of war.
— Further giving pause was Reid’s decision to allow only a handful of amendments to come to the floor for debate before the election, including the one that would allow gays to serve openly. “The Senate should have the ability to debate more than the three amendments the majority leader is allowing,” Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, telegraphing her opposition before the vote.
“Today’s Senate vote was a frustrating blow to repeal this horrible law,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has fought for repeal since shortly after Congress passed the law in 1993. “We lost because of the political maneuvering dictated by the mid-term elections.”
The final blow for those seeking repeal was the testimony, only hours before the vote, of General James Amos, nominated as the next commandant of the Marine Corps. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee he feared that lifting the ban would be a “distraction” for Marines fighting in Afghanistan. “My primary concern with proposed repeal is the potential disruption to cohesion that may be caused by significant change during a period of extended combat operations,” he told the panel in a written statement he provided for his confirmation hearing in a written statement provided to the panel for his confirmation hearing. That kind of language gave opponents of lifting the ban all the ammunition they needed.