Brown vows to support repeal of ‘don’t ask’ law

Senator Scott Brown, shown on Capitol Hill yesterday, has offered his support, but the bill’s fate is still unclear. Senator Scott Brown, shown on Capitol Hill yesterday, has offered his support, but the bill’s fate is still unclear. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Senator Scott Brown said yesterday that he will support renewed efforts to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy, helping supporters secure the 60 Senate votes they would need to block a filibuster and pass a bill to allow gays to serve openly.

Senate Democrats said last night that they would bring the repeal up for a vote as early as tomorrow and, with the potentially pivotal pledge from the Massachusetts Republican, the prospects for passage are stronger.

“If and when a stand-alone repeal bill comes up for a vote, he will support it,’’ said Gail Gitcho, Brown’s spokeswoman.

Repeal of the 17-year-old policy, seen as highly unlikely as recently as last week, has political momentum. President Obama, who infuriated many liberals by cutting a tax deal with Republicans, renewed his push for an overturn of the policy and picked up the support of several key GOP senators.

“We’re over 60 votes; it would be just wrong to let the opponents of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ to run out the clock so that it can’t happen,’’ said Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who has been leading the charge for repeal. “To me this is not only good for the military but it’s a civil rights measure. And the days should be over when we let civil rights measures be filibustered so they can’t be adopted.’’

The policy has been the subject of controversy since President Clinton initiated it in 1993. Earlier this year, a federal court declared the law unconstitutional, a decision now under appeal. An in-depth Pentagon study found that ending the ban would not harm long-term effectiveness, although some top Army and Marine generals broke with their superiors and warned that letting gays serve openly during wartime would be disruptive.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this week found that almost 8 in 10 Americans favor repealing the policy.

The major hurdle in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ during the current lame-duck session has not been whether there was enough political support, but whether there would be time to debate and vote. The Senate calendar has been crowded during the remaining days of the session, and some Republicans have been threatening to stifle at least two remaining issues, a $1.1 trillion spending bill and a nuclear arms control treaty.

Last night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pulled the spending bill, which included $213 million in earmarks for Massachusetts, after Republicans objected.

Reid said he would instead push for a measure that would temporarily continue federal spending at current levels. An agreement has to be reached by tomorrow night, when current funding expires, or the government would be shut down.

Reid’s decision not to pursue the spending bill, though, has cleared the docket in the Senate and greatly improved the chances for the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ repeal. He has set a vote for tomorrow on the issue. If it clears a crucial filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold, it would set up a final vote on Monday.

The Senate will also vote tomorrow on legislation that would provide some young illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship as long as they meet certain conditions, such as graduate from college or join the military. That bill, the so-called Dream Act, is seen as having a tougher chance of passage.

“We will soon vote on a bill that provides young people brought here by their parents with a path to citizenship through academic achievement or military service,’’ Reid said in a statement last night. “After that, we will vote to determine whether we follow the advice of our military leadership and repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ ’’

The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday, 250-to-175, to repeal the policy. Such a repeal had been included in a much larger defense authorization bill, but now supporters are pursuing legislation that would only impact the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy.

Two weeks ago, Brown was among those who opposed a sweeping defense bill that included the repeal. That bill failed to overcome a filibuster. Brown said at the time that he would support abolishing the policy, but only after the Senate passed a tax cut extension package and a budget proposal was addressed. The Senate passed the tax cut package Wednesday and now appears headed toward a compromise on a budget plan.

A spokeswoman said Brown would now back the repeal legislation, even if it comes up before the budget proposal is finalized.

“Senator Brown’s commitment is proof that we will have the votes to get this discriminatory and unjust law off the books,’’ said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “There’s no reason why this shouldn’t come up for a vote before the session ends.’’

With Brown and at least three other Republican senators — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — saying that they will support repeal, supporters said they have 61 votes, giving them one to spare to block a filibuster.

That could end up being crucial. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who supports repeal, said last night that he has prostate cancer and may end up missing upcoming votes to prepare for surgery on Monday.

Most Senate Republicans, chief among them John McCain, of Arizona, have argued that the “don’t ask’’ policy should not be changed while the country is fighting two wars. Still, the longest that Republicans could inject procedural delays is about 2 1/2 days, Lieberman said. “I’m happy to stay overnight if we have to to get it done,’’ he said.

That maneuver, though, could temporarily delay action on a nuclear arms control treaty that Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, has been trying to get approved. Lieberman also said yesterday that some Republicans were threatening to block the arms control treaty if the “don’t ask’’ repeal went through.

Reid also said yesterday there would be a vote on a bill to provide medical benefits and compensation to the first responders to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that Obama has been in touch with Reid over how to proceed on the “don’t ask’’ repeal.

“There’s time to do this if there are those on the other side of the aisle that wish to get this done,’’ Gibbs said.

Matt Viser can be reached at