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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ other bills, await Congressional action this fall

WASHINGTON (BP)–Members of Congress will begin returning to business Sept. 13 with the volatile issue of homosexuals in the military awaiting more action.

The Senate and House of Representatives will reconvene the week of Sept. 13-17.

When they resume business, the Senate or House, or both, will have the opportunity to advance not only the lifting of a ban on homosexuals in the armed services but other proposals opposed by pro-life and pro-family advocates.

Such measures that could receive votes this fall include the authorization of federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos; elimination of a restriction on elective, privately funded abortions in military health-care facilities; solidifying repeal of a ban on government grants for organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas, and legalizing Internet gambling.

Though the House already has approved legislation overturning the ban on open homosexuals serving in the armed forces, it appears unlikely the Senate will address such a political “hot potato” only weeks before the Nov. 2 election. The Democrat leadership could postpone a vote to overturn the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law until an expected “lame-duck” session is held in November and December. Waiting until a “lame-duck” session would enable vulnerable senators to escape a politically costly vote before the election while pre-empting the swearing in of what will likely be a more conservative Congress in January.

Other proposals the leadership in Congress may choose to promote only in a “lame-duck” session include reforming the immigration system, levying a national tax as part of a down-sized energy bill and revising campaign financing in a way pro-family groups say would restrict their freedom of speech.

Members of Congress “will be under tremendous pressure to pass liberal bills while the opportunity exists,” said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“While it is likely that many vulnerable congressmen and senators will be very nervous about taking any controversial votes prior to the November elections, the pressure to deliver for liberal constituencies will be immense,” Duke told Baptist Press. “It is crucial that these men and women hear from Bible-believing values voters between now and the end of the year to help them make the right decisions.”

The House approved repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t’ Tell” in late May, when representatives voted 234-194 for such an amendment to the annual Department of Defense authorization bill. Members later passed the overall legislation in a 229-186 roll call.

On the same day the House approved its amendment, the Senate Armed Services Committee forwarded its version to the full chamber in a 16-12 vote.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — which was enacted in 1993 — prevents homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibits military commanders from asking service members if they are homosexual or about their “sexual orientation.”

Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” oppose repeal because they say it will undermine military readiness, cohesion, privacy, recruitment and retention, as well as the religious freedom of many service members and chaplains whose opposition to homosexual behavior is based on the Bible.

President Obama promised during the 2008 election campaign to overturn the ban. During his State of the Union speech in January, the president said he would work for repeal this year.

The House and Senate actions in May came only three days after the White House and congressional leaders reached an agreement on a way to pass repeal of the ban. Under the agreement and subsequent legislation, repeal would not go into effect until the Pentagon has finished a study of the issue Dec. 1. The agreement requires that President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen sign off on repeal of the policy. All three are on record in support of repeal.

Gates implemented a comprehensive review of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in March. As part of the study, the Pentagon is eliciting feedback from military personnel and their families. Gates said in April he believes “in the strongest possible terms” that the review should be complete prior to any legislative action. Mullen and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines also said Congress should not act until the review of the current policy has been completed.

A link to an online questionnaire was e-mailed in July to 400,000 military personnel, and another survey was to go to 150,000 family members in August, according to the Department of Defense.

In other legislative efforts:

— The attempt to restore federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) may receive a vote in the House before the election. Rep. Diana DeGette, D.-Colo., said she expects the chamber to pass her bill in September, Politico reported Sept. 3.

DeGette’s proposal, the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act, H.R. 4808, would also authorize funding of human cloning, as long as the clone is not implanted in a womb.

DeGette’s push for passage follows an Aug. 23 decision suspending funding of ESCR. Federal judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction blocking the continued application of last year’s federal guidelines governing grants for research on stem cells taken from human embryos. An appeals court Sept. 9 stayed the injunction.

Obama overturned by executive order in March 2009 a prohibition instituted by President Bush on federal funding of ESCR in 2001. Lamberth found the guidelines subsequently published in July 2009 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) violated a 1996 law that prohibits federal funds for research in which a human embryo is destroyed.

The ability of stem cells to convert to other cells and tissues has provided great hope for developing cures for various diseases, but extracting stem cells from an embryo results in the destruction of the days-old human being. Only research with adult stem cells in which their extraction does not harm donors has provided successful treatments in human trials.

— Another amendment to the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act would strike down a longstanding prohibition on abortions in military facilities. The amendment, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois, would eliminate a restriction on elective, privately funded abortions in military health care facilities that has been in place for the last 14 years. Burris’ proposal would not affect the ban that exists on publicly funded abortions at armed services hospitals.

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the Burris amendment in a 15-12 vote. The defense authorization bill approved in the House of Representatives does not include the repeal of the ban. If the bill eventually passed by the Senate includes the provision, its fate in the final version would be negotiated in a conference committee of members of both houses.

— The Senate will consider a spending bill that includes a measure that would strengthen repeal of a ban on federal funds for organizations that perform or promote abortions overseas.

The Appropriations Committee approved an amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D.-N.J., July 29 that would codify President Obama’s 2009 reversal of the Mexico City Policy. The provision was added to the State and Foreign Operations spending bill.

If the amended bill is passed and signed by President Obama, a future pro-life president would not be able to reinstate the Mexico City Policy with an executive order. It would require congressional action — a much taller hurdle.

The policy, which was in effect from 1984 to 1993 and 2001 to 2009, prohibited international family planning organizations from receiving federal funds unless they agreed not to perform or counsel for abortion or lobby in order to liberalize the pro-life policies of foreign governments.

— A House committee has forwarded to the full chamber a bill that would have the effect of rescinding the four-year-old Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. That law largely bars online gambling in the United States by requiring financial institutions to block credit card and other payments to Internet wagering businesses. Long-delayed regulations enforcing the law went into effect June 1.

In late July, the House Financial Services Committee voted 41-22 for the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act, H.R. 2267. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank, D.-Mass., would both legalize such wagering and authorize the federal government to regulate it.

A related measure — the Internet Gambling Regulation and Tax Enforcement Act, H.R. 4976 — would provide for taxation of gambling revenues in conjunction with Frank’s legislation. The House Ways and Means Committee is expected to consider it in September, according to the ERLC. Rep. Jim McDermott, D.-Wash., is the bill’s sponsor.

— Abortion rights advocates introduced this summer legislation seeking to control advertising by pro-life pregnancy help centers, but they appear to lack the backing needed at this time to gain passage.

The Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Services Act, S. 3554 in the Senate and H.R. 5652 in the House, would direct the Federal Trade Commission to issue new rules banning advertising that intends to give the impression a center provides abortions when it does not.

The bill is in committees in both chambers but has only 25 cosponsors in the House and none in the Senate.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.