The U. S. Senate’s top Democrat said last week that he will call for a vote in the lame-duck session on legislation that would allow gays to serve openly in the military.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement makes good on his pre-election promise to resurrect legislation that would repeal the 1993 law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
But it remains far from certain whether the legislation would have enough votes to pass. Several leading Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have said they oppose lifting the ban.
“We need to repeal this discriminatory policy so that any American who wants to defend our country can do so,” Reid said in a statement.
The legislation would, for the first time, allow gay troops to acknowledge publicly their sexual orientation. However, the repeal of the current law would take effect after the president and his top military advisers certify that doing so would not hurt the military’s ability to fight.
The bill emerged from a deal struck earlier this year between more liberal Democrats eager to change the law and the White House, under pressure by the Pentagon to give it more time to determine how to repeal the law without causing any backlash.
The provision is tucked into a broader defense policy bill that includes such popular programs as a pay raise for the troops, which gay-rights groups hoped would help its chances of passing.
But when the bill reached the Senate floor in September — just weeks before the midterm Congressional elections — Republicans united in objecting to its debate on procedural grounds. Reid insisted that few amendments be considered in the interest of time; Republicans said restricting debate on such a wide-ranging policy bill was unfair.
Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Reid, said last week that it had not been decided yet how many or which amendments might be considered for debate.
A wild card in the upcoming debate will be a Pentagon study on gays in the military that will be released Nov. 30.
Last February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he supports an eventual repeal of the law but wanted time to figure out how it should be done. He ordered a 10-month study due Dec. 1, and announced last weekend the report would be released one day early.
If the Nov. 30 deadline holds, the Senate Armed Services Committee could hold hearings that week on the measure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Gates said in a press conference Sunday.
Gates noted that if Congress is unable to pass the legislation, the issue could be left up to the courts, which he said would not be the best course for repeal. The government is currently appealing a court ruling that would lift “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
A draft of the 370-page Pentagon assessment has found that the ban could be lifted with little harm and that most troops don’t object to the change in personnel policy, according to officials familiar with its findings. But it also found that some troops had serious concerns with repealing the law.
Military officials have warned that even scattered resistance to the change could pose logistical and discipline problems for field commanders.
Gay-rights groups see the lame-duck session of Congress, before newly elected Republicans are sworn in, as their best chance at repealing the law. The House has already passed the bill. But come January when the new Congress is seated, Republicans will take control of the House and the Democratic majority in the Senate will be narrowed by six seats.