Republicans block vote on repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ military policy

By Mark Arsenault and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 10, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans blocked a repeal of the ban on openly gay service members yesterday, potentially dooming any chance for overturning the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy this year.

The push for repeal fell three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Maine Republican Susan Collins joined 54 Democrats and two independents in backing repeal, with 40 senators voting against.

The vote was a major setback for President Obama and other Democrats who sought a legislative reversal of the 17-year-old policy. Repealing it will be even more difficult after Republicans take control of the House and increase their numbers in the Senate next year.

The debate is expected to shift now to the courts, where the ban is being challenged on civil rights grounds.

Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts joined 38 other Republicans and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia in the filibuster. Brown had declared his support of the repeal last week but joined his fellow Republicans in opposing it yesterday because, his spokesman said, Democrats had not brought an extension of income-tax cuts and a spending bill to the floor first, as the GOP had demanded.

Brown “supports repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ once those issues have been addressed,’’ his press secretary, Colin Reed, said in a prepared statement after the vote.

Advocates for repeal had picked up major support last week when Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended eliminating the ban, citing pending court rulings and a Pentagon survey of troops that indicated the policy could be changed without significant disruptions. At the same time several Republicans had signaled they could back repeal.

That momentum made yesterday’s defeat all the more bitter for repeal advocates, who said they were angered that such a consequential policy change had imploded over procedural wrangling in the Senate.

Some senators said after the vote that they hoped to bring another measure before the lame-duck session of Congress expires. Their chances of success appeared slim because of the short time remaining, even though majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada vowed to allow a vote on such a measure.

The Bay State’s largest gay-rights group, MassEquality, blasted Brown’s explanation of why he joined the filibuster as “outrageous.’’

“There is nothing courageous about his saying he would vote to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ as he did last week, only to hide behind a procedural maneuver so that he would never have to take that vote,’’ said MassEquality director Kara Suffredini.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ repeal was included in a much broader Senate bill that authorizes $726 billion in military spending next year. The defense authorization bill normally attracts broad bipartisan support and has passed every year for nearly a half-century.

But this year, partisan disagreements over the terms of the debate — as well as the inclusion of the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ repeal — prompted Republicans to filibuster.

The Pentagon took steps earlier this year to soften the current policy against gays, including barring third-party allegations from sparking an investigation into a soldier’s sexual orientation and elevating the rank of officers who can kick a soldier out of the military for being gay or lesbian.

Gates has insisted that a congressional repeal of the ban is urgently needed because a pending lawsuit in federal court could lead to an immediate and disruptive repeal, without giving the armed services a chance to implement the repeal gradually and judiciously.

A federal court earlier this fall ordered the Pentagon to halt discharges after declaring the law unconstitutional. The Pentagon briefly halted the policy before the Obama administration appealed the ruling and successfully got a stay of the court order.

“It is only a matter of time before the federal courts are drawn once more into the fray,’’ Gates told reporters Nov. 30, “with the very real possibility that this change would be imposed immediately by judicial fiat — by far the most disruptive and damaging scenario I can imagine, and one of the most hazardous to military morale, readiness, and battlefield performance.’’

Obama said yesterday he was “extremely disappointed’’ in the failure of the bill and urged the Senate to take it up again before adjourning for the year.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy “weakens our national security, diminishes our military readiness, and violates fundamental American principles of fairness, integrity, and equality,’’ the president said in a statement.

“It’s disappointing, in a lot of different ways,’’ Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in an interview after the vote. “I’m disappointed in it, but I’m not surprised because of the position the Republicans have taken on these legislative items.

“It continues unfairness, and an institutionalized discrimination that’s unacceptable,’’ he said. “I think we’ll win it; I think we’ll get there. Like a number of things here, we’ve got to be patient and be willing to come back and fight another day.’’

Some Republican senators complained that Reid had forced a vote on the issue without allowing them an opportunity to make changes in the defense bill.

Collins, who had tried to negotiate a deal that would expand debate and allow for more amendments on the bill, said in a floor speech before the vote that she was distressed that Reid was rejecting their talks and pushing ahead without an agreement.

“There was such a clear path for us to be able to get this done,’’ she said. “I’m perplexed and frustrated that this important bill will become a victim of politics.’’

Other Republicans echoed her complaint. “What we needed was a reasonable process with reasonable amendments,’’ Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaskan Republican, said in an interview.

Reid said he pushed ahead with the bill yesterday because Republicans were trying to “run out the clock’’ on the Senate’s lame-duck session to stall Democratic initiatives.

“They want the tax and the spending bills done before they will allow us to move to the defense bill,’’ said Reid, in remarks on the Senate floor. “At the same time they say we need to wait, they say they need as much time as possible to consider this bill. It isn’t possible to do both.’’

Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report.