Senate committee and House approve compromise on Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 16-12 today to pass a compromise that will probably lead to repeal of the prohibition on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to vote for the compromise. Jim Webb of Virginia was the only Democrat to vote against it. I wouldn’t have predicted that Webb would vote no when people like Evan Bayh, Robert Byrd and Ben Nelson voted yes.

This bill appears to have the votes to pass on the Senate floor. Representative Patrick Murphy (an Iraq War veteran) is offering a comparable amendment to the Defense Authorization bill in the House. Technically, it’s not correct to call this a “repeal” of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, because the legislation allows officials at the White House, Pentagon and Joint Chiefs to leave the policy in place. Here’s what will happen if the amendment makes it into the final bill passed by the House and Senate:

When the President signs the Department of Defense Authorization bill into law, DADT will not instantly be repealed. Repeal would take place only after the study group completes its work in December 2010 and after the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense all certify that repeal will not hurt military readiness or unit cohesion.

So, gay and lesbian soldiers will continue to be discharged several months (and perhaps several years) from now. Still, I agree with Adam Bink; this has to be viewed as a “giant step” toward taking Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell off the books. Ideally, Congress would have passed stronger legislation, but I’d rather have them pass this deal now than shoot for something better next year. If Republicans took control of the House or Senate, we’d have no hope of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for a long time.

Iowa’s senators don’t have seats on the Armed Services Committee, but Tom Harkin is expected to support repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Chuck Grassley opposes moving forward on this issue until the Pentagon has completed its review of the policy, and it sounds like even if the report recommends repeal, Grassley is a likely no vote: “I’m going to be listening to see what it does for readiness and our national security. Because we’ve had the policy in place for 18 years… and it seems to have worked and not affected the readiness.”

Senator, that policy didn’t work so well for “over 13,500 well trained, able-bodied soldiers willing to take a bullet for their country” who have been “kicked out of the military simply because they were gay.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: The House passed the amendment 234 to 194 tonight, with five Republicans voting yes and 26 Democrats voting no. I will post a link to the roll call when it’s available, but I think all three Iowa Democrats voted yes. Leonard Boswell’s statement on why he supports repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is after the jump.

UPDATE: Here is the House roll call. Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack did vote yes, along with most of the Democratic caucus. Tom Latham and Steve King voted no, with almost all the House Republicans.

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Marriage equality anniversary thread

One year ago today, the Iowa Supreme Court’s Varnum v Brien ruling went into effect. From April 27, 2009 through the end of last year, at least 1,783 same-sex couples received marriage licenses in Iowa. The real number is probably higher, because about 900 marriage licenses did not specify the gender of the couple involved. Despite a petition drive led by some Iowa Republicans and the Iowa Family Policy Center, not a single county recorder denied a marriage license to a same-sex couple.

Although all three Republican candidates for governor say they want to overturn the Varnum v Brien ruling, marriage equality is probably here to stay. Conservative groups are not urging voters to pass a ballot initiative calling for a constitutional convention, which would be the quickest path to amend the Iowa constitution. Bob Vander Plaats probably won’t win the Republican nomination for governor, much less the November election, and even if he did, his plan to halt gay marriage by executive order is a non-starter.

That leaves the self-styled defenders of traditional marriage one path: approving an amendment restricting marriage rights in two separately elected Iowa legislatures, then convincing a majority of Iowans to vote for that amendment (in November 2014 at the earliest).

Republicans have an outside shot at winning a majority in the Iowa House in 2010, but they have virtually no chance of taking back the Iowa Senate this year. Democrats currently hold a 32-18 majority in the upper chamber. A net gain of four or five seats is the best-case scenario for the GOP, and I consider a net gain of two or three seats much more likely. That leaves Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal in a position to block all efforts to bring a constitutional amendment on marriage to a floor vote during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.

Gubernatorial candidate Rod Roberts claims he could force Democrats to allow a marriage vote. His plan is to veto all legislation, including the state budget, until the Iowa House and Senate have voted on a marriage amendment. I doubt a Republican could win that game of chicken even if Governor Chet Culver is defeated this November. Polling indicates that most Iowans are not eager to ban gay marriage and think the state legislature has more important things to do. Anyway, the most likely Republican nominee, Terry Branstad, has an incoherent position on gay marriage and probably would make only a token effort to get a constitutional amendment passed.

Share any thoughts about same-sex marriage in Iowa in this thread.

Speaking of civil rights, some reports indicate that the House of Representatives will vote this year to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which has ended far too many military careers. Click here to read a moving open letter to President Obama from an Air Force major who was discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Panel will study how to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell

During his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama promised, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” Today the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing today on the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made headlines by saying he believes “the right thing to do” is to let gays serve openly:

Adm. Mike Mullen’s statement was the strongest yet from the uniformed military on this volatile issue, although he stressed that he was “speaking for myself and myself only.”

He told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday he is deeply troubled by a policy that forces people to “lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate committee he also supports ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. However, he is appointing a panel to study how to lift the ban for a full year, meaning that hundreds more men and women are likely to be discharged under the policy before it goes away. The Obama administration is expected to implement new rules on purging troops under this policy, but it’s not yet clear how much that will reduce the number of discharges while Gates’ panel studies the issue. According to MSNBC, “more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy” since 1993, but “The 2009 figure – 428 – was dramatically lower than the 2008 total of 619.”

Meanwhile, at today’s hearing Senator John McCain argued against reviewing the policy at this time, saying it boosts “cohesion” and “unit morale.” He also presented a letter signed by 1000 officers who support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Come on, McCain. Even a jerk like Joe Lieberman understands why this policy is stupid.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin made the case for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in this piece for the Politico, but it doesn’t sound like he’s in a big hurry:

So there is little reason to continue this policy. But as we proceed, it is vital that we are sensitive to any complications of this policy shift. Change is always hard, especially when it involves social issues or personal beliefs. Lack of care as we proceed might spark opposition from those who could be open to change, and inflame the opposition of those already against it. And I would encourage those who favor change not to mistake deliberation for undue delay.

Point taken, but I am concerned by the timetable Gates is setting with a yearlong study. I hope Congress will act this year, because if Republicans retake the House or the Senate this November, there will be no chance of ditching Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for the forseeable future.

Daily Kos user TennesseeGurl notes that even if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, LGBT Veterans will still get a raw deal. Unfortunately, I see no realistic path to fixing that problem.

UPDATE: Levin “said an amendment could be added to the must-pass Defense Authorization bill which outlines military policy for the year.” Taking that path would allow the Senate to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with a simple majority (as opposed to the 60 votes required to break a Republican filibuster).

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day thread

President Barack Obama gave a great speech yesterday at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy:

Marc Hansen’s latest column for the Des Moines Register profiles Robert A. Wright, who died last week. Wright

fought in World War II as a first lieutenant, helped integrate the dorms at the University of Iowa, played football for the Hawkeyes, worked as a Des Moines cop, graduated from Drake Law School, become head of the NAACP Iowa-Nebraska Conference and earned the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights.”

So much accomplished, but so much still to be done. Democratic Senate candidate Bob Krause is right to call attention to the shameful disparity in Iowa’s incarceration rates, although solving that problem seems more like a task for state officials than for a U.S. senator. UPDATE: Krause contacted me to point out that “that there is a federal issue in incarcerations. Our neighbors in Minnesota have the same problem at a rate approximate with ours. Disproportionate incarceration falls under the ‘equal protection’ clause of the Constitution.” Point taken.

Speaking of civil rights, it looks like the Obama administration may not push for repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell this year after all. Given likely Republican gains in Congress in 2010, I think prospects for repeal will be dead for a long time if it doesn’t happen soon.

Any comments about today’s holiday or any issues relating to equality are welcome in this thread.

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Year in review: national politics in 2009 (part 1)

It took me a week longer than I anticipated, but I finally finished compiling links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage from last year. This post and part 2, coming later today, include stories on national politics, mostly relating to Congress and Barack Obama’s administration. Diaries reviewing Iowa politics in 2009 will come soon.

One thing struck me while compiling this post: on all of the House bills I covered here during 2009, Democrats Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack voted the same way. That was a big change from 2007 and 2008, when Blue Dog Boswell voted with Republicans and against the majority of the Democratic caucus on many key bills.

No federal policy issue inspired more posts last year than health care reform. Rereading my earlier, guardedly hopeful pieces was depressing in light of the mess the health care reform bill has become. I was never optimistic about getting a strong public health insurance option through Congress, but I thought we had a chance to pass a very good bill. If I had anticipated the magnitude of the Democratic sellout on so many aspects of reform in addition to the public option, I wouldn’t have spent so many hours writing about this issue. I can’t say I wasn’t warned (and warned), though.

Links to stories from January through June 2009 are after the jump. Any thoughts about last year’s political events are welcome in this thread.

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New urgency on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell

President Barack Obama’s spokesman confirmed in January that the president is committed to ending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibits gay and lesbian soldiers from being open about their sexual orientation. The official White House website still promises to repeal this policy.

Congressional action is required to change Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and there have been some questions about whether Congress will get a bill on this to Obama’s desk during 2009.

The advance of marriage equality in Iowa and Vermont brings new urgency to the matter, as shown by a Des Moines Register story I’ve linked after the jump.

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Obama needs to keep his word on Don't Ask, Don't Tell

At Daily Kos and VetVoice, Brandon Friedman of VoteVets brings us the news that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has authorized a new pilot program allowing the armed forces to recruit “up to 1,000 foreigners who have lived in the states legally for at least two years” and who have medical and language skills that are “vital to the national interest.”

As Friedman points out, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy led to 3,715 troops being discharged between 2002 and 2006. Clearly, many of those people had been trained as doctors, nurses and linguists. (Friedman profiles one person who falls into each category.) In 2007 alone, 58 gay Arabic-language speakers were forced to leave the U.S. armed forces.

It makes no sense for the military to recruit foreigners to do jobs Americans are willing and able to do. Barack Obama has promised to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, says he is confident Obama will keep that promise. But last month Sarvis indicated Obama may wait several months or even until 2010 before asking Congress to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Whether a delay is smart politics is debatable. Perhaps finding consensus on other issues first is important. Perhaps packaging the repeal as part of a larger bill on military staffing makes sense. Punting this move until an election year may or may not be wise. Although a majority of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, the issue has the potential to rile up the Republican base.

But the need for the military to have sufficient skilled personnel should trump all political arguments. If Obama is serious about being pragmatic (putting policy above political considerations), then he and his defense secretary cannot justify recruiting foreigners to do jobs Americans can do. Remember, these medical and language skills are “vital to the national interest.”

Your move, President-elect Obama.