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Sen. Levin Key To 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Deal

Sen. Carl Levin at the Capitol in April. Levin's resolve to force a vote on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy during the current session of Congress helped lead to a compromise.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Sen. Carl Levin at the Capitol in April. Levin's resolve to force a vote on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy during the current session of Congress helped lead to a compromise.

As the House on Friday passed a 2011 defense authorization bill that includes repeal of the law barring openly gay Americans from serving in the armed forces, rights advocates and the White House launched aggressive efforts to get a similar measure passed this summer in the Senate.

But activists, who are pushing for a Senate vote before Congress takes its August recess, said they were also savoring the victories they recorded on Thursday:

-- A 234-194 vote in the House to include an amendment repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in its version of the defense bill.

-- The Senate Armed Services Committee's 16-12 vote to add the repeal measure to its defense bill.

"Let's be clear, nobody expected the vote we got last night in the House," said Trevor Thomas of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "Our whole legislative team was crying."

Why? Because Democratic leaders had managed to corral 10 more pro-repeal votes -- including those of five Republicans -- than were reflected in even the most optimistic head counts taken by repeal advocates before the vote.

"We were thinking we'd get 220, 225," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of the SLDN. "Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi deserves an enormous amount of credit for scheduling this vote and whipping it, whipping it, whipping it."

Repeal advocates said it was always their intention to bring the amendment directly to the House floor for a vote to bypass the House Armed Services Committee and its chairman, Ike Skelton of Missouri, who opposes ending the policy.

Levin Is Lauded

But though Pelosi (D-CA) and amendment author Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) were getting their share of credit for pushing repeal to a vote, the big morning-after hero in the rights community was clearly Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Levin is being credited with forcing a vote on the measure during this session of Congress, even though the White House and Pentagon were arguing for a delay.

Activists pointed specifically to comments Levin made during an interview in early May when he said that the Senate would not be a "rubber stamp" for President Obama's preferred timeline.

"He says he wants to repeal don't ask," Levin said in an interview with Congressional Quarterly. "Why shouldn't we repeal it?"

Obama, who favors repeal of don't ask, don't tell, and military leaders had argued that Congress should postpone a vote until an armed services commission completes its review of how lifting the ban on openly gay service members would affect the military. That review is expected to wind down by year's end.

But Levin indicated that the White House and Pentagon would not dictate a congressional timeline.

The senator, Sarvis says, "came to the realization that this needed to get done in this Congress." And done before November's midterm elections, when Democrats are expected to lose congressional seats and clout.

Turning Points

There were other turning points in the don't ask, don't tell debate -- including the historic Feb. 2 testimony by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who said that repealing the ban "would be the right thing to do."

"I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Friday on NPR's All Things Considered, Mullen repeated his support for changing the policy. And he said that while officials have gotten some "resistance" from members of the military about repealing don't ask, don't tell, "I've also seen support."

But to move the White House and Pentagon officials to the compromise amendment, which includes delaying implementation until the military review is complete and allows the president and military brass to "certify" the new policy, Levin had to line up enough support on his committee to move forward without the administration's endorsement.

Once he demonstrated that he was on the brink of moving repeal legislation without the executive branch, advocates say, Levin and others -- including independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut -- crafted the compromise language with the administration and Pentagon.

In the previous months, repeal advocates had already been lobbying at least six members of Levin's committee -- Democrats Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jim Webb of Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Webb and Brown were the only "no" votes in the group.

Advocates thought they could persuade Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, to join the repeal effort by suggesting that a "yes" vote could potentially make up for his 1979 assertion that allowing women to serve in the military would have grave national defense consequences.

Repeal proponents noted that Webb's son, a Marine, had made it clear, Sarvis says, that he was serving with gays in the military and "it was no issue."

"But the senator's posture was that he wanted to show the greatest amount of deference and respect to the Joint Chiefs and wanted the decision to come from the Pentagon, not Congress," Sarvis says, even though it was Congress that passed the ban 17 years ago.

Republican Sen. John McCain, an Armed Services Committee member who solicited letters from military leaders advocating a delay in congressional action until the military review is complete, is expected to attempt to strike the repeal language from the bill when it comes to the floor.

That would require 51 votes, which Hill watchers don't believe the senator can muster. Short of that, McCain or other opponents could delay action on the bill by objecting to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's motion to raise the bill for consideration.

Friday, in a videotaped message played for armed forces personnel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "it appears Congress will eventually change the don't ask, don't tell law." But Gates also said that it could be months before the policy lands on Obama's desk.

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