Senators want Congress, not courts, to repeal 'Don't Ask'

In a renewed call to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring service by openly gay men and women, several senators Tuesday called on the Senate to act "immediately to debate and pass a defense authorization bill" that includes a provision that would end the ban during next week's lame-duck session.

"If Congress does not act to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell' in an orderly manner that leaves control with our nation's military leaders, a federal judge may do so unilaterally in a way that is disruptive to our troops and ongoing military efforts," Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in a statement.

With Republicans comprising a majority in the House in the next Congress and the Democrats' margin becoming even narrower in the Senate, the senators emphasized the importance of passing the repeal as soon as possible. "And it appears that the only way that can happen is if it is on the defense bill," the senators said.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., who has led opposition to lifting the ban, has been urging Senate Democrats to strip out the language repealing the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law in the fiscal-2011 defense authorization bill that has been stalled in the Senate. The repeal language already has passed the House as part of its version of the authorization bill, and cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Rudy DeLeon, who has held several senior Pentagon posts, including the top personnel job, argued in a conference call for reporters that repealing the ban legislatively would not force an overnight change in military operations or hurt combat readiness.

He said language in the House-passed bill and Senate committee bill acknowledges the Pentagon's current policy review, which will culminate with a report by December 1 on the impact that repeal of the ban would have on the troops and how the change should be implemented. President Obama is then expected to certify that he, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen -- each of whom has endorsed repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" -- have reviewed the report and agree there would not be an adverse impact on military readiness.

"Then there is a 60-day period before the [repeal] decision goes into effect," said DeLeon, who also served as Democratic staff director of the House Armed Services Committee. During this period, Congress would review the president's certification and Pentagon report and allow the military an "important opportunity for their input and to offer suggestions and recommendations on the actual implementation," he said, describing the process spelled out by the repeal language in the defense bills.

So far, the Obama administration has stood firmly in favor of an authorization bill that includes a repeal provision, said Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress, who participated in the conference call. "It's getting to the point now where 'don't ask, don't tell' and the defense authorization bill are emerging as something this leadership and the Democratic majority in the Senate want to see get done," she said.

As other important issues -- such as the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts -- may consume a lot of time, the lame-duck session "may be longer than many predict," Stachelberg said. That "increases the likelihood of passing a defense authorization bill with [a repeal] in it," she added, reasoning that the defense bill is widely regarded as a must-pass measure.

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