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After defeat, Democrats vow to keep fighting 'don't ask, don't tell'

Republicans filibuster the debate on a defense bill that contained a provision allowing gays to serve openly in the military. The issue is likely to be revisited after November's election.

September 21, 2010|By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Republicans blocked Senate Democrats' effort to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays Tuesday, demonstrating a sharp, election-year contrast between the parties on an Obama administration priority.

Republicans filibustered debate on the annual defense authorization bill because it contained the provision. GOP opposition was solid, with no Republican voting to allow debate to move forward.

But with polls showing that Americans overwhelmingly support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, Democrats vowed to revisit the issue after November's midterm election.

"Today's vote was a vote for delay," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which favors repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." "Hopefully, once the midterm election politics are behind us, common sense and good judgment will prevail."

The policy allows gays and lesbians to serve as long as they don't reveal their sexual orientation. More than 13,500 officers and enlisted men and women are estimated to have been discharged under the rule.

By blocking the defense bill, Republicans also held up a Democratic plan to attach an immigration amendment important to Latino voters. That measure, known as the Dream Act, would give youths who are in the country illegally a path to citizenship if they join the military or attend college for two years.

The provision on gay service members was included in the 2011 defense authorization bill after the House voted this year to end the 1993 ban, pending a Pentagon review expected in December.

Democrats linked the issue to the $725-billion military bill, which includes a 1.4% pay raise for troops and $159 billion to continue funding the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Democrats, attention to the issue is likely to help motivate their base to vote in November while portraying Republicans as insensitive to gays.

Both Robert M. Gates, the Defense secretary, and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

But Republicans charged that by linking the issues to a military authorization bill, Democrats sought political gain and jumped ahead of an agreement between the White House and military commanders to await the Pentagon review.

"Why are we now trying to jam this thing through?" said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led the fight against repealing the military policy. "This is all about elections."

It was the latest unified Republican effort to block President Obama's legislative agenda.

Republicans in the 111th Congress have engaged in record numbers of filibusters, but argue they are forced to do so because Democrats deny them opportunity to offer amendments. Democrats often reject Republican attempts to load up bills with unrelated measures.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who was the only Republican to support a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" this year when the defense bill was before the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposed it Tuesday after expressing discomfort with the debate format.

"I find myself on the horns of a dilemma," Collins said. "But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate."

The vote was 56 to 43, short of the 60 required to end a filibuster.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R- Alaska), who is running as an independent after losing her bid for the GOP's senatorial nomination last month, did not vote.

Two Arkansas Democrats, Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, joined Republicans in voting against advancing the bill. Lincoln faces a tough reelection battle.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, proposed a last-ditch deal Tuesday to open debate with 20 amendments alternating between the sides — but only if the Dream Act was not among them. Democrats refused.

Latino activists watched from the visitors' gallery, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) vowed to bring the issue to a future vote.

One Latino law student from New York spoke at a news conference about coming to the United States illegally with his parents as a 5-year-old. Now knowing no other country, he wants to serve as a military lawyer.

"What I have tried to do with the Dream Act is give these young people a chance," said Durbin, who introduced the bill a decade ago. "We do not in this country hold the crimes and misdeeds of parents against their children."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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