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DADT moves to full Senate
by Chuck Colbert

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As early as the end of this week, the full Senate could to take up the Defense Authorization Act of 2011, this year's version of a Pentagon spending bill that has attached to it an amendment to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" ( DADT ) . In advance of the Senate's action, repeal advocates are gearing up, asking the LGBT community to keep up pressure on lawmakers to lift the nearly17-year law and military policy that bans openly gay service.

For repeal proponents, vigilance is the watchword for next few weeks or months. A Senate recess is scheduled July 4-12 and then again from Aug. 9-Sept. 10.

Meanwhile, in asking senators for their vote, one message from repeal advocates is clear, enough, "Follow the lead of Senator [ Carl ] Levin, [ D, Mich. ] ," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) . Levin, an ardent advocate for repeal, serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

SLDN sounded another talking point, during a recent telephone conference with reporters. "Don't ask, don't tell' has not gone away," warned the organization's communications director Trevor Thomas, adding, "Every day the law is on the books," gay and lesbian service members are "at risk" of being discharged.

Indeed while the Congress deliberates and the Pentagon working group continues its work—including a plan to survey several tens of thousands of the troops and their families—gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marine corpsmen remain in limbo.

And gay service-related discharges in fact are continuing even under the regulations that require a flag officer—one star admiral or general—to initiate an investigation and sign off on discharges based on "homosexual conduct." One SLDN attorney is currently representing a service member facing a possible discharge initiated after the revised regulations went into effect, revisions which were designed to reduce third-party outings. "The revised regulations have not stopped investigations and will not stop discharges," cautioned Sarvis.

Sarvis' caution comes at a critical juncture of lift-the-ban efforts. Last month, the House of Representatives voted by a margin of 234-194 in favor of an amendment that included repeal language, a measure sponsored by Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa. The vote came as congressional repeal leadership reached an agreement with the White House, requiring that before any repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must sign off—or certify—that implementation of openly gay service can be accomplished without undermining the military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruitment and retention. Then the 60-day review period kicks in.

But with action now poised for the Senate, repeal proponents are on guard as the ranking minority leader of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has already threatened a filibuster. At the same time, GOP repeal detractors seek to change the certification process by amendment to include approval from all service chiefs. An expanded amendment would present a significant hurdle insofar as some of the branch chiefs have voiced publicly their opposition to repealing DADT.

Besides fending off a filibuster and preventing a broadened certification process, repeal proponents must beat back any move to strike repeal language entirely from the Department of Defense ( DoD ) spending bill. In the Senate 60 votes are required to end a filibuster, while only 51 votes are necessary to approve the defense authorization legislation.

As the Senate begins deliberations any day now, four senators could be key to the future of DADT, including Democratic senators Jim Webb of Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snow, both of Maine—all four who could buck their parties political lines.

With all eyes on the Senate, Sarvis said, "We're going to suggest to leadership only one amendment to 'don't ask, don't tell'" be permitted. As he explained, for repeal proponents, a best-case scenario would be to "beat back" the filibuster and bring "cloture" with hopes that "we are dealing with only the amendment to strike."

Why is that? "It's easier to message and easier to get Republican support," according to Sarvis. Defeating any amendments, he explained, is key because right now the language adopted in the Senate Armed Forces Committee is the same as that passed by the House.

After the Senate votes, the DoD bill goes to a joint congressional conference committee. There, Sarvis said, if the House and Senate language are the same, "It will be difficult, but not impossible, he said, "for conferees to adjustments or modifications on language."

Assuming the House and Senate reach accord in conference and the Defense Authorization Act of 2011 is signed into law by the president, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is unlikely to take effect, however, until next year.

A possible time line for open service looks like this: The first trigger date is the Dec. 1 deadline for Pentagon's working group report. The study due to Congress is a report—not if or whether—to implement openly gay service, should lawmakers enact repeal.

Still, "There is no reason why [ the president, Secretary Gates, and Admiral Mullen ] cannot sign off on certification shortly after that date," Sarvis insisted.

Although 60 days must pass before openly gay service would take effect, that time frame, Sarvis was quick to note, "Is to review certification—not to vote on, and not to approve," adding, "There is no reason why we cannot have open service for our troops, early next year before the end of the first quarter of 2011."

©Copyright 2010 Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

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