Two-Step Plan to End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

By Kenneth Jost
Associate Editor
      The White House and congressional leaders have reached an accord for a two-step repeal of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But the plan, accepted by gay rights groups, still faces uncertain prospects in pivotal votes later this week.
      Under the compromise reached in a White House meeting on May 24, Congress would vote to repeal the 1993 law that bars open gays and lesbians from serving in the military. The change in policy would be delayed, however, until after the Pentagon completes a study, due to be finished by Dec. 1, on how to implement the change.
      In addition, the proposed legislation would condition the end of the policy on a certification from President Obama and Pentagon leaders that the change would not harm military readiness or unit cohesion.
      The White House formally endorsed the plan in a letter from budget director Peter Orszag to Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., who has been the chief House sponsor of repeal legislation. In the letter blessing the accord, Orszag said the delay would “guarantee that the Defense Department has prepared the necessary policies and regulations needed to successfully implement the repeal.”
      Murphy plans to introduce the plan as an amendment to a defense spending bill due to be considered on the House floor on Thursday, just before Congress leaves for its Memorial Day recess. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., would similarly offer the plan on Thursday when the Senate Armed Services Committee takes up its version of the defense spending bill.
      A leading House Republican said GOP members will oppose the plan. “The American people don't want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference.
      Gay rights groups that have been critical of the White House’s failure to press more forcefully to end the policy applauded the new plan with modest reservations. In a statement, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called the White House agreement “a dramatic breakthrough in dismantling ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” But Sarvis voiced some ambivalence in a comment to the Washington Post. “We can live with it,” Sarvis told the newspaper.
      From the opposite side, Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which backs the current policy, is attacking the proposed two-step repeal. “Any vote for a 'repeal deal' with 'delayed implementation' would be an irresponsible abnegation of Congress’ authority, surrendering the military to the control of political appointees doing the president’s bidding,” Donnelly said.
      More than 13,500 service members have been discharged under the policy since Congress passed the law in 1993. Congress adopted the policy as a compromise after President Bill Clinton’s plan to lift all restrictions on service by gay men and lesbians touched off a political firestorm in his early days in the White House.
      Obama promised during his 2008 campaign to push to repeal the policy, but did little more than reiterate his stand in a speech to the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner in October and in his State of the Union address in January. In February, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both endorsed ending the policy in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
      In his testimony, Gates said he was immediately easing enforcement of the policy and also creating a task force to study the practical steps needed to implement repeal. The White House had been urging lawmakers to wait until completion of the study to take up the issue. The congressional supporters of repeal were impatient with the delay, however.
      For their part, gay rights leaders were openly worried that the possible loss of Democratic seats in the November elections would imperil repeal in the next Congress. Sarvis is stressing now that the outcome of this week’s votes is not assured. “The votes still need to be worked and counted,” he says.

      For background, see Peter Katel, “Gays in the Military,” CQ Researcher, Sept. 18, 2009.