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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal Effort Dealt Setback in Senate

September 21, 2010 at 4:43 PM EDT
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The Senate could not reach 60 votes to start debate on a defense spending bill Tuesday, effectively blocking an attached repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Jim Lehrer talks to Political Editor David Chalian and Time Magazine's Mark Thompson for more on the potential implications as November's midterms draw near.
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JIM LEHRER: Today’s vote in the U.S. Senate means the ban on gays in the military will stand, at least for now. Opponents of the ban fell four votes short today in their bid to break a filibuster.

The vote was about whether even to begin debating a military budget bill. It included language calling for repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. But the Republican filibuster held, and the measure stayed stalled at a vote of 56-43.

MAN: The motion is not agreed to.

JIM LEHRER: Sixty votes were needed. And it came down to a handful of senators, including Maine Republican Susan Collins. She backs repeal of the 17-year-old ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, but she opposed a limit on amendments.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS(R-ME): I think we should welcome the service of these individuals who are willing and capable of serving their country. But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down the debate and preclude Republican amendments. That, too, is not fair.

JIM LEHRER: It was clear that most Republicans opposed repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell on its face. They included James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE(R-Okla.): I think it’s a political mistake. It’s a dumb thing to do to try to use the defense authorization bill in times of war to advance a liberal agenda. And what is that liberal agenda? The liberal agenda is to have open gays serving in the military.

JIM LEHRER: Supporters of repeal argued the bill’s language would authorize it only after a Pentagon survey of troops and after the president certifies morale wouldn’t be affected. Connecticut independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman:

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I-Conn.): That provision doesn’t go into effect until 60 days after the president of the United States, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all certify in writing that repeal is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting, and retention of the armed forces.

JIM LEHRER: The president, back in his State of the Union address, made clear he wants repeal.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: As for the public, a Washington Post/ABC News poll last February found majorities of Americans and Republicans now support letting gays serve openly in the military. And public pressure has been brought to bear in many forms, including Monday’s rally by pop singer Lady Gaga in Senator Collins’ home state.

LADY GAGA, Musician: I thought equality was non-negotiable.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JIM LEHRER: Republican Senator John McCain answered today that it’s politics that is driving Democrats.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): This is all about elections, not about the welfare, the well-being and the morale and the battle-effectiveness of the men and women who are laying it on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

JIM LEHRER: The four armed services chiefs opposed the Senate move, and the incoming commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, agreed with him at his confirmation hearing today.

McCain recited part of the general’s prepared remarks.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: The 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. Is that an accurate quote from your statement, General?

GENERAL JAMES AMOS, U.S. Marine Corps: Yes, sir, that sounds accurate.

JIM LEHRER: But the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin, pointed out that view is not shared by the general superiors.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), chairman, Armed Services Committee: Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in front of our committee back in February, said the following:

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, chairman, Joints Chiefs: No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: He reached a conclusion — so did Secretary Gates — reached a conclusion. This policy must change. Because an election was coming up? Secretary Gates, a Republican, decides this policy must change because there’s an election coming up? Of course not.

JIM LEHRER: The issue will now have to wait at least until after the election. The military’s review of the effects of repeal is due in December.

And we go to NewsHour political editor David Chalian and Mark Thompson, deputy bureau chief and Pentagon correspondent for “TIME” magazine. David, lay out the politics of what happened today in the Senate and why.

DAVID CHALIAN: I know you will be shocked to find out that there was actually politics going on.

JIM LEHRER: So, John McCain was right; there were some politics involved?

DAVID CHALIAN: There were some politics played. Listen, you heard the president in the State of the Union earlier this year. This was a promise he made that would get done this year. The Democrats have a singular mission right now in this election season, and that is to drive up some enthusiasm and excitement among their base.

Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, wanted this vote a little earlier this year, but he wanted it before the election. And part of that is to excite the base. The problem was, this was a huge setback, Jim. This really blew up in the Democrats’ face, to some degree, by not getting to that 60-vote threshold that they needed to accomplish exactly that political goal.

JIM LEHRER: And what is the Republican counterstake here, going on the other side?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, it’s the reverse, right? They — none of their members wanted to go along with the Democrats and perhaps dampen the huge enthusiasm that we see on their side of the aisle right now out there in the electorate, also not wanting to give the Democrats any kind of victory prior to the election.

But if you listened to Susan Collins and John McCain in that piece there, they provide the path here to Harry Reid in terms of bringing this up again in the future, right? They laid out the arguments that need to be set aside. He has to allow for more amendments. My guess is, probably, if this does come up in a lame-duck session after the election, that he will allow for more amendments.

And John McCain said, we need this review first. My guess is, this will not come up again until after December 1, when that review from the Pentagon comes over to the White House for the president to certify.

JIM LEHRER: Why was Susan Collins so critical to this?

DAVID CHALIAN: She voted in May in committee along with the Democrats. So, she voted to include the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell into the bill. So, it was a vote they were counting on. Listen, you know the math in the Senate. They have 59 votes.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID CHALIAN: To get to 60, they needed one, at least one Republican. And since Susan Collins had already voted with them on the issue…

JIM LEHRER: They figured she would be that.

DAVID CHALIAN: … they figured she would be that 60th vote for them. That’s why she played such a key role. But she said she blamed it on the process, right? She wanted more amendments.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, amendments.

DAVID CHALIAN: And so she wasn’t there for them today. But they’re not giving up on her.

As you know, the Democrats have been going to Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe on some of the toughest votes for the last 18 months, the stimulus bill, the financial regulatory reform bill. I think the senators from Maine, who are well aware of what’s going on inside their party, and this sort of ideological purity test that’s been going on inside the Republican Party, and they’re a little fearful about that in the future.

And there are only so many times that the White House can dip into that well of, we need those two senators from Maine. They can’t go with them politically every time.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, Mark, to the — to what’s happening inside the Pentagon on this issue. Now, the study that was ordered by Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, where is it? Where does it stand at this moment?

MARK THOMPSON, Deputy Bureau Chief and Pentagon Correspondent, “TIME”: Well, they’re well under way. As David said, they have got to get it to the White House by December 1. They have surveyed something like 400,000 servicepeople, 150,000 of their family members. How are you going to feel if openly gay men and women can serve in uniform? What are we going to do about insurance policies, public displays of affection, uniforms, all sorts of, you know, entangling alliances that come about with such a big change in policy.

The problem today, I think, was that the cart was put before the horse. Senator after senator who might have been counted on to come over to the Democrats’ side wouldn’t, simply because the Pentagon review has not yet been done, and won’t be done for another two months.

I mean, all four of the service chiefs wanted to wait until that was done before the Pentagon — before the Senate voted, as did Secretary Gates.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the — General Amos, the Marine general who is to be commandant, was his opposition based on the fact that the study wasn’t over, or was it based on the idea of it?

MARK THOMPSON: I think it was mostly based on the fact that the wars aren’t over. He feared that the wars — that changing the law in the middle of the wars would be what he called a distraction.

I mean, let’s face facts here. The services most concerned with this policy change are the Army and the Marines, because those are the folks who are on the ground in the mud, the Air Force and the Navy, not such a big issue.

But General Amos basically is sort of carrying the same water that General Conway, the current commandant of the Marine Corps, was carrying. He’s been the most outspoken and has even said, you know, maybe we will have to have separate quarters for gay troops, as well as straight troops, which most people don’t think will happen.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, have any of the results of the survey thus far leaked out in any way whatsoever?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, no, but you have leaders like Admiral Mullen saying, you know, we hear about these concerns, but, anecdotally, they say, we’re not hearing them. When we go out to bases and posts around the country and around the world, they basically support what we’re trying to do.

Remember, the military is overwhelmingly young. And this is a generational change. And the younger people you talk to, the less of an issue it is.

JIM LEHRER: Is that true with the population generally in the polls, David?

DAVID CHALIAN: Right. You referenced that Washington Post/ABC poll from February.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

DAVID CHALIAN: It is one of those issues, Jim, that we have seen a real movement on over time, where an overwhelming majority is supportive of the idea of gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, as you said.

Even a majority of Republicans have come to that point of view. We have really seen the electorate move on this, largely in — to that point about it being a generational issue, as younger voters are coming into the electorate, they have less and less concern about it.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any doubt within the folks at the Pentagon that, because the secretary of defense and because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs says we’re going to change the policy, yes, we’re going to do this survey, but the policy is going to change?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, the Pentagon has been very explicit on that point, Jim. They have said, we are studying how to deal with a change in the law. We are not charged with, should we change it? That’s not what they’re studying. They’re only studying how it should be implemented if it changes.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any doubt, David, that, if this Pentagon study comes back with something at least that indicates that the — at least the leaders of the Pentagon, based on the study, believe that the impact will not be that negative, that enough senators can get this work — get this done?

DAVID CHALIAN: I think that would go a long way. Certainly talking to several members in the gay rights’ community that have been working on this issue, they believe that’s their best hope now, to sort of remove that issue, get this study there. If it is in their favor, they feel that they could rally support.

But, Jim, I just want to tell you, the Senate landscape changes on November 2, not in January, because there are three special elections…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, sure.

DAVID CHALIAN: … Colorado, Illinois, and Delaware, key Senate races. Those senators will be seated immediately and would vote in this lame-duck session.

So, you will see a lot of attention now on those states as well from this community that the White House was trying to energize. And, today — I think a piece of their disaffected base became that much more disaffected today.

JIM LEHRER: OK. David, Mark, thank you both very much.