By Scott Wong and Manu Raju
Senate Democrats on Thursday moved one step closer to repealing the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scheduling a key vote Saturday on a bill to end the ban on openly gay service members.
But Democrats are bracing for an enormous backlash from repeal advocates if they fall short again.
As time runs out on the 111th Congress, top Democrats are pointing fingers at Republicans for stalling Senate action, saying if the buzzer sounds before Congress ends the policy, the GOP will be to blame. Still, there are at least four Republican senators on the record saying they’ll vote to repeal “don’t ask” under the right procedural circumstances.
Democrats also are reminding gay-rights activists that they — not their Republican counterparts — have been fighting to overturn the 17-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
One Republican senator suggested “he was going to do everything he could to run out the clock,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters. “I don’t think that’s really what the American people want — to run out the clock. I think what they want is for us to get things accomplished.”
But Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, contends the GOP just wants an opportunity to debate and offer amendments to important bills like the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the DREAM Act and the repeal bill.
Cornyn said there was plenty of time earlier this year to tackle those issues. The Senate has been in session only 151 days this year, compared with 191 days last year, and it didn’t hold votes on any Fridays.
“Here we are in the eleventh hour, and they try to jam all this through. It’s really a product of mismanagement of the calendar,” Cornyn told POLITICO. “They used to call this the greatest deliberative body on earth. Now, it resembles more of a railroad — just ram it on through.
“They may be just trying to show their base that, yeah, they really tried hard,” he added, “and the mean ol’ Republicans stopped them from getting it done.”
Whether the Democrats’ approach will work is an open question. While gay rights groups do blame the GOP, which has promised to block all legislation until the government is funded and Bush-era tax cuts are extended, they have been urging Senate Democratic leadership to make the measure a higher priority and not wait until the end-of-the-session logjam to move it forward.
“We’re running out of time to get a lot of things done around here,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a proponent of the repeal. “I hope we can get a lot of things done, including that one.”
Publicly, President Barack Obama has reaffirmed his support for repealing the policy this year. But the White House is quietly pushing far more aggressively for the new START treaty, signaling it may be open to punting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal until after the new year if it can get enough GOP votes on the treaty for ratification, according to several senators and Democratic aides.
“I’ve heard rumors of that, but it would be unconscionable,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a leading repeal advocate in the Senate. “It really would be immoral because we have fought hard for this for a long time. It’s wrong, and we have to change it, and we’ve got the votes. And we can’t let people run the clock out on us when we’re talking about basic American rights.”
Reid’s decision Thursday night to ditch a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill in favor of a short-term spending resolution clears precious floor time for the Senate to tackle the repeal bill and other measures before Christmas. And if Reid can get a clean bill to the floor, repeal supporters apparently would have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Of the 58 senators who caucus with Democrats, only Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) doesn’t support repeal. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Thursday he may miss some votes because he is scheduled to have prostate cancer surgery, but his staff later confirmed he would cast votes Saturday.
And on Thursday, Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said they would join Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in backing a repeal bill that cleared the House this week. Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe also said she supports repeal, but didn’t say whether she would vote for the bill.
But even Republican supporters of the plan say the last-minute logjam could have been avoided if Reid and Democrats moved the measure earlier.
“There are all these things that everybody wants to do, that everybody has to do,” said Murkowski, who said she’s “ready” to vote to repeal the policy. “How many days on your calendar that will allow us to get to these?... We should have thought about that two weeks ago.”
Senate Democrats say they could not sustain the attacks from the left if they didn’t do everything in their power to push a vote on repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Others say the gay community and the Democratic base would be understanding if they couldn’t get a bill done this year.
“I have a lot of people in Nebraska who are supportive of repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but they don’t hold against you what you can’t do,” said Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat up for reelection in 2012. “I think they’ll look and see who’s been holding it up, who’s been against it, who’s been dilatory, whos’s been obstructionist on that and other things and [they will] hold them accountable.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said he wants the measure to come up for a vote, but said the blame would be at the GOP’s feet if it couldn’t happen.
“I think that the division between the Democrats and Republicans on this issue is pretty clear,” Cardin said. “There’s enough Republican support that we can pass it this year and we should pass it. If for some reasons the Republicans are successful in blocking it on the floor because of the procedural issues, that’s their position.”
Activists, however, warn that the gay community isn’t beholden to any political party. Although gays donate disproportionally more to Democrats, nearly a third voted Republican in the November elections.
“The gay community is no longer that simplistic. Credit and blame will be given where appropriate,” said one gay activist. “It’s a little simplistic to say that we don’t have anywhere to go. ... We don’t have to vote or give money.”
Still, Democrats hope that the desire to get out of town before Christmas will produce deals with the GOP and allow Democrats to vote more swiftly on their agenda.
“There’s only so much time,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). “It’s coming up as a test between time and measures. Something is going to have to give. ... I want to go home for Christmas. I don’t want to be here for Christmas. And I don’t want to be here between Christmas and New Year’s [Day] either.”
Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska added: “I think, with a little snow falling and long hours, people want to expedite a few things around here.”
Still, Democrats are growing more uneasy as time runs out and uncertainty builds over whether the Senate can finish everything on its agenda.
“There were more questions than answers,” said one participant at a House-Senate Democratic leadership meeting Thursday.
Reid said the Senate will vote Saturday on the DREAM Act, though the bill that would provide a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants seems likely to fail. Then, they’ll move to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.
Once those measures are finished, the Senate will move forward with debating the New START arms control treaty with Russia. That may be concluded early or in the middle of next week.
Then Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are working to finalize an agreement to clear stalled executive branch and judicial nominations, allowing the 111th Congress to come to a close before Christmas.