07.11.09

"Don't Ask" Fight Hits Senate

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand could force the Senate to take up the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy this week, The Daily Beast has learned. Jason Bellini on the plot to halt the ban on gays in the military.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is considering bringing the battle over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the Senate this week, by introducing an amendment that would put an 18-month moratorium on the discharge of gays serving in the military, The Daily Beast has learned.

It would be the first time since the implementation of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 that senators are forced to declare their position on the gay ban. A Senate staffer familiar with the matter says Gillibrand may introduce her amendment on Tuesday to the Defense reauthorization bill. If the amendment were to pass, gay-rights leaders expect it would stand a strong chance of being approved by the House and could be signed into law by President Obama, who has expressed his desire for the ban to be lifted. Rep. Patrick Murphy is trying to build support for a bill that has already been introduced in the House that would repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

But Gillibrand's move would circumvent a long legislative process at a time when an average of two gay soldiers per day are being discharged.

A press representative from Gillibrand's office said the decision to introduce the amendment is not final.

"Senator Gillibrand is working with Senator Kennedy's office to garner support for a repeal of ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell,’ and this is part of an ongoing effort to repeal this policy," said Bethany Lesser, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Two national gay-rights organizations, the Human Rights Campaign and the Service Members Legal Defense Network, which advocate for gay and lesbian members of the military, were involved in pushing the amendment, according to people familiar with the matter. This past week, leaders from both groups shopped the idea around to various Senate offices, hoping to find the best possible sponsor.

"We went and explored this idea with several senators who were interested in doing something with DADT," says Kevin Nix, communications director for Service Members Legal Defense Network. "Gillibrand is one of those senators we've talking to about doing this."

Nix says there is legal consensus that Congress can "direct the secretary of Defense to stop the investigations of gay and lesbian service members" while Congress considers full repeal.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in May, 69 percent of Americans favor gays openly serving in the military.

Over the last month, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has been the focus of growing media attention. President Obama was unequivocal about ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the campaign, causing gay activists to question why he has delayed its cancellation during his first few months in office.

Senator Gillibrand has been an outspoken opponent of the policy and has vowed to repeal the ban. Facing a contested primary next year, Gillibrand is trying to gain support from New York's gay community. As a representative, she had the lowest pro-gay ratings of any New York Democrat, according to a Human Rights Campaign scorecard.

Gillibrand has also been an outspoken supporter of Lt. Dan Choi, an Arab linguist who is slated to become the latest service member to lose his job because of the policy. Choi, who served for 15 months in Iraq, has helped make the ban on gays a front-and-center issue. Once his discharge becomes official, he'll become the 266th service member to be kicked out since Obama took office.

The president's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, who is now asked about the issue regularly in his daily press briefings, has repeatedly insisted, "The only and best way to do this [repeal the ban] is through a durable comprehensive legislative process."

Some gay activists say the White House may be reluctant to take action on the issue out of fear of repeating what happened to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. During the opening months of Clinton’s presidency, the issue turned into a media frenzy and helped derail, among other things, his health-care agenda. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, was a senior adviser to Clinton.

"Rahm has terrified everyone about their experience in 1993," former Clinton adviser and gay activist David Mixner said in a telephone interview. "At this stage, there is no reasonable or logical explanation of what is stopping them. It is irrational fear at best," Mixner said. "The fact of the matter is that he could have ended it with a stop-loss order, and it would have cost them nothing politically. For God’s sake, we are allowing convicted felons to serve."

The larger problem with president's waiting strategy is that anger is spreading beyond the gay-activist community. Cable news hosts, including Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, are framing Obama as being on the wrong side of civil rights. Olbermann has called Obama "goddamned wrong” on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Jason Bellini is a freelance TV journalist who has worked for MTV, CBS, and CNN. In 2006, he received the Journalist of the Year award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.