News Analysis: Four Days That Shook DADT (UPDATED)

White House steps in to move seemingly intractable stakeholders in the past week's pivotal ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' juncture

by Chris Geidner
Published on June 2, 2010, 10:22am | Comments

In the 96 hours between Monday morning, May 24, and Thursday evening, May 27, America may have seen the most deft legislative accomplishment of the Obama administration thus far.

It began Monday morning, when the White House first got the senior leaders of the Pentagon and the advocacy organizations seeking to end the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy to make significant compromises about the end of the policy. At the same time, congressional leaders in both chambers consented to the compromise language and agreed to introduce the resulting legislation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made clear repeatedly to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) – an opponent of repeal – that he did not yet want to see any legislative action on DADT repeal. Instead, Gates has stated that he prefers the Pentagon working group he appointed to examine repeal implementation first finish its study, which is not due until Dec. 1. LGBT organizations, on the other hand, have repeatedly made clear to the White House and others that legislative repeal of DADT is imperative before the end of the year – more specifically, before November's midterm elections that may result in a Congress more hostile to DADT repeal and other LGBT civil-rights issues.

In order to accommodate both camps, both entered a gray area that allowed the repeal process to take one – and just one -- large step forward. Officials at the Center for American Progress have taken credit for having devised some of the crux of the compromise.

So, what was the compromise – reached among people who, while not necessarily agreeing on methodology, have all publicly committed to supporting the end of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' – and why did it happen?

Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave up on delaying a vote until after the Pentagon study but maintained control of the timeline. That is the piece they won: The amendment requires them – along with the president – to certify that the Pentagon's DADT report has been reviewed, that regulation changes are ready and that unit cohesion and recruitment standards will continue to be met after repeal is implemented before the repeal process would get its next pivotal green light.

For the sake of crossing last week's legislative hurdle, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and Servicemembers United gave up on getting repeal completed in this year's defense authorization bill. These three major players on DADT also gave up on including a nondiscrimination provision in repeal. But that legislative hurdle – and it was a major hurdle – has now been jumped, meaning that, if the amendment is passed by the full Senate and signed into law, DADT repeal will have successfully passed the only congressional votes needed to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.

Congress, of course, gave up something too, as the amendment allows the executive branch to determine the effective date of the repeal. Yes, it was the congressional push for legislative action and leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that brought repeal efforts to the fore, but it was the White House that got these three disparate groups – the Pentagon, Congress and LGBT advocacy groups – all to sign off on the amendment.

Then, agreement in hand, the White House announced its support and – with its group of supporters – fought off opposition from the lower military leadership and LGBT activists, with some from both groups considering unacceptable the compromises that made the amendment possible.

On Tuesday night, May 25, Get Equal co-founder Kip Williams interrupted Obama as the president spoke at a San Francisco fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), prompting a lengthy response from Obama. Williams said in an interview after, ''The solution now being discussed to repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is an empty half-measure and, even if passed, it will allow discharges of lesbian and gay service members to continue indefinitely.'' Indeed, there is no language in the amendment that suspends the current policy, which calls for the discharge of any gay or lesbian servicemember whose sexual orientation becomes known by his or her military peers.

On Wednesday, the service chiefs of the Marine Corps, Air Force, Army and Navy all sent letters to Capitol Hill voicing varying degrees of opposition to the amendment. Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations, wrote, ''[L]egislative changes at this point, regardless of the precise language used, may cause confusion on the status of the law in the Fleet and disrupt the review process itself by leading Sailors to question whether their input matters.''

Despite that, voices supporting the compromise kept pushing throughout the week, anticipating the introduction of the amendment in the Senate Armed Services Committee by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Thursday, May 27, and a House floor debate and vote on the same amendment to be introduced by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) described as ''likely'' coming Friday, May 28.

Then, however, in an uncharacteristically swift series of votes, the two most important bodies to vote on the measure passed their votes – both with Republican support and both with room to spare – in a period of a few hours on Thursday evening, May 27.

The most remarkable part of the whole week was the non-role that homosexuality actually appeared to play – at least, on the surface – in the debate, unlike the homophobia-fueled debates of the 1990s that led to DADT.

Opposition in the House was, for the most part, couched in process-based terms about the timing of the vote and the Pentagon working group. It was left to Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and a few other far-right members to speak about the military not being a ''social experiment.''

By the end of the night, all of the Democrats on the Senate committee, except for Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), were joined by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in voting for the amendment. In the House, all but 32 of the Democrats were joined by five Republicans – representing districts in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and Illinois – in supporting the amendment.

With the votes completed, and as critics of the compromise note, there are still many steps remaining before gay and lesbian people can openly and honestly serve in the military.

The House, on Friday, May 28, took the first by passing the full defense authorization bill, including the DADT compromise amendment.

Although Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has threatened a filibuster of the bill when it reaches the Senate floor, it's not clear that he has the votes to mount a serious effort – or the passion to follow through with it after his Arizona-primary challenge is past him.

The full extent of the disconnect between the GOP votes and the country was nowhere more clear than on ABC's This Week. During the Sunday news program, conservative columnist and a regular on the show, George Will, when asked about the Republican opposition to repeal, concluded simply, ''They're not being very intelligent.''

Although there is a possibility that differing defense spending priorities – which already have led to a veto threat from the White House – could cause trouble for the bill down the line, there's no reason to believe the DADT provision would be removed from a future version of the bill.

Finally, although the certification of the working-group report is discretionary and is required before the statute will be removed from the books, it is only required from three people – Obama, Mullen and Gates – who are on record repeatedly as supporting the repeal. It was Mullen and Gates, in fact, whose testimony on Feb. 2 before the Senate Armed Services Committee in favor of repeal opened the door to the possibility of support from moderate Democrats and Republicans.

It was Mullen, notably, who told those senators that the core problem of DADT's restrictions on lesbian and gay servicemembers ''comes down to integrity – theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.''

The long-awaited end of the military's discriminatory policy toward gays and lesbians serving openly is not yet here, but the 96 hours preceding Thursday night's 10 p.m. House vote, along with the testimony of Feb. 2, will likely be looked back on by advocates of its end as the most essential moments in its demise.