"Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Showdown Looming in Senate

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The Pentagon launched Operation New Dawn on September 1, purportedly signaling the end of combat operati0ns in Iraq after seven years. This week, those backing the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law — clearing the way for openly gay men and women to serve in the U.S. military — are pinning their hopes for their own new dawn after 17 years under a law that makes them hide their sexual orientation. They’re hoping their daylight may break Tuesday afternoon when the Senate, following the House’s lead, is slated to hold a key vote towards abolishing the law. But opponents, fearing that scrapping the ban would lead droves of service personnel to abandon the military and hurt the nation’s fighting forces amid two wars, are fighting back and may be on the verge of prevailing.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan/DoD photo

If both houses pass the law and it wins President Obama’s signature as part of the 2011 defense authorization bill, all it would take to end the ban is a certification by Pentagon leaders that allowing gays to serve openly would not hurt military readiness. That decision would likely come around year’s end following a Pentagon study, now underway, into the impact of lifting the ban.

Both backers and opponents of the change say the outcome remains too close to call, although late Sunday backers of repeal said they believe they don’t yet have the 60 votes they need to halt an expected filibuster and push ahead with the repeal effort. Pop star Lady Gaga is headlining a rally at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Monday to convince the state’s two GOP moderate senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, to join the Democrats in shutting down Republican efforts to cut off the debate. “We need at least one or two Republicans to help,” one pro-repeal strategist says. “Senators Snowe and Collins are the best chance we have.” Those pushing repeal know that now may be their last opportunity for awhile — GOP gains in the Nov. 2 election could make passage next year far more difficult.

Publicly, advocates of change remain optimistic. “I think a majority of the Senate, like a majority of the American people, wants to see `Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ go,” says Army veteran Aubrey Sarvis, director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending the ban. “It’s been a cultural change led by young people.” Polls suggest most Americans favor ending the ban.

But not everyone agrees. Elaine Donnelly, of the non-profit Center for Military Readiness, warns that scrapping “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could drive people out of the military. “Combined voluntary and involuntary losses of careerists in communities, grades, and skills that are not easily replaceable could break the all-volunteer force,” she says. An unscientific survey of U.S. troops by the independent Military Times newspapers last fall showed 51 percent opposed lifting the ban.

The language repealing the law is an amendment to next year’s defense authorization bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled for debate Tuesday afternoon. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and one-time Navy pilot, has pledged to “fight every way we can” to preserve any decision on the ban until the Pentagon concludes its study into the impact of lifting it. Tuesday’s vote will be to shut down any filibuster aimed at preventing debate to proceed on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” If backers of repeal get the 60 votes need to continue the debate, they believe they’ll also have the votes to overturn the ban.

The fact that the nation may be poised to reverse the 17-year old law shows just how far public opinion on the issue has shifted. When Congress passed what came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law in 1993, there was a sense that lawmakers were slamming the door on the possibility of openly gay people serving in the military for decades. They had taken the action as a slap at then-President Bill Clinton, who came into office brandishing a promise to let homosexuals serve openly — without checking first with either the Pentagon or Capitol Hill. To teach him a lesson — and to show the new President at what end of Pennsylvania Avenue the real power resided — Congress wrote what had been merely a Presidential order into the law of the land.

The 2010 debate changed markedly in February when Obama — who has pledged to lift the ban, but can’t do so without congressional approval — won support from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and, more critically, from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While there are reservations about lifting the ban among some senior officers, General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said last Wednesday that the military is ready to follow orders. “The working groups [the Pentagon has set up to deal with any change in the law] have looked at the various issues that might entail should the law change — everything from billeting to entitlements to personal displays of affection to you name it,” he said. Such preparation will let the military “take a much more thoughtful, targeted and effective approach to implementation.”

Assuming a vote to repeal, Obama, Gates and Mullen each has to certify that lifting the ban won’t hurt national security. Some opponents have suggested adding Schwartz and the three other service chiefs to that list, which could hamper repeal (the ground-pounding Army and Marines generally seem more opposed to changing the law than the Air Force and Navy). McCain and others also have said the idea of voting to lift the ban before the Pentagon finishes its own report on the matter, due Dec. 1, is backwards. The proposed law specifies that if the Pentagon officials declare changing the policy would hurt readiness, the existing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rules “shall remain in effect.”

For more than a decade, the law — and the Pentagon policy that flowed from it — remained unshaken, even as more than 1,000 troops a year were forced out once their sexual orientation became known. Even the brutal murder of PFC Barry Winchell at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell in 1999 didn’t do much to change things. More than anything else, it seems it was the incongruity of kicking highly-trained troops out of uniform as the nation waged two seemingly endless wars — amid recruiting challenges and “stop-loss” orders that kept soldiers on duty months beyond their enlistments — that has made repeal a real option.

The Senate debate comes two weeks after Federal District Court Judge Virginia Phillips ruled in California that the policy violates the 1st and 5th amendment rights of gay service personnel. Unlike many prior jurists, she didn’t steer clear of imposing her views on the Pentagon, declaring that barring openly gay people from serving has “a direct and deleterious effect” on the military. “Judge Phillips’ decision,” repeal supporter Sarvis says, “should be a catalyst for the Senate to act.” Repeal opponent Donnelly is amazed that a federal judge would interfere with the operation of the U.S. military. “They should leave such issues to the Congress,” she says. Looks like Tuesday’s vote will be one of the rare points in this long-running debate that both can agree on.