A SENATE bill to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was headed for defeat last night, a major setback for gay groups which saw the vote as their last chance this year to overturn the 17-year-old ban.
Advocates had been optimistic that the Democratic-controlled White House and Congress could overcome objections to repeal of the law barring gays from serving openly in the military. The move is unpopular among Republicans, military officers and social conservatives.
But Senate Democrats were expected to fall at least one vote short of the 60 needed to limit debate and advance the legislation.
Maine Republican senator Susan Collins, the only Republican to support repealing the law and seen as the crucial 60th vote, said she would not support advancing the bill because Democrats wouldn’t allow Republicans sufficient leeway to offer amendments.
If Democrats lose seats in the upcoming elections this autumn, repealing the law will prove even more difficult — if not impossible — next year.
“The whole thing is a political train wreck,” said Richard Socarides, a former White House adviser on gay rights during the Clinton administration.
Socarides said President Barack Obama “badly miscalculated” the Pentagon’s support for repeal, while Democrats made only a “token effort” to advance the bill.
“If it was a priority for the Democratic leadership, they would get a clean vote on this,” he said.
Senate Democrats attached the repeal provision to a bill authorising $726 billion in military spending next year. With little time left for debate before this autumn’s congressional elections, the bill received little attention until gay rights groups backed by pop star Lady Gaga began an aggressive push to turn it into an election issue.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, gave Republicans the chance to offer only one amendment to address GOP objections on the military’s policy on gays.
Collins said she planned to vote against advancing the bill unless Democrats agree to extend debate so that her colleagues could weigh in on other issues.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said the senator would be willing to allow more debate on the bill after the November elections.
But “today’s vote isn’t about an arcane Senate procedures”, he said. “It’s about a GOP’s pattern of obstructing debate on policies important to the American people.”
An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law since its inception in 1993. Although most dismissals have resulted from gay service members outing themselves, gay rights groups say it has been used by vindictive co-workers to drum out troops who never made their sexuality an issue.
Top defence leaders, including secretary Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, have said they support a repeal but want to move slowly to ensure changes won’t hurt morale, recruitment or retention.
Gates has asked Congress not to act until the military finishes a study, due December 1, on how to lift the ban without causing problems.
He also has said he could live with the proposed legislation because it would postpone implementation until 60 days after the Pentagon completes its review.
In another blow to the bill, Obama’s pick to lead the Marine Corps told a Senate panel yesterday that he worried that changing the policy would serve as a “distraction” to 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,” Gen James Amos said in a written statement provided to the panel for his confirmation hearing.
Some Republicans have suggested they fear troops who openly oppose gay service would be punished for speaking out.
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