WASHINGTON (BP)–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) said Nov. 17 he would hold a post-Thanksgiving lame-duck floor vote on repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t tell military policy, setting up an end-of-the-year showdown between supporters and opponents of the law that prohibits open homosexuality in the armed services.
If the vote fails, then Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell could be in place for years to come, because Republicans will take control of the House in January and are highly unlikely to allow such a vote. Supporters of the current policy argue its repeal would harm religious freedom, privacy, military readiness and cohesion.
The repeal language is part of a larger bill known as the defense authorization bill. Conservatives also are opposed to language in the bill that would eliminate a restriction on elective, privately funded abortions in military health care facilities.
It’s unclear if Reid has the necessary votes. He didn’t have the votes in September, when every Senate Republican in attendance joined together with Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas, to filibuster the defense bill. Needing 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, Reid got only 57, but changed his vote from “yes” to “no” at the last minute in a procedural tactic that allowed him to bring the bill up again.
Reid’s caucus has taken a hit since September, though, when it had 59 members. Republican Senator-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois will be sworn in Nov. 29 and will replace a Democrat, decreasing Reid’s caucus total to 58. As a member of the House, Kirk voted against repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The vote likely will take place after Dec. 1, the date a Pentagon survey of military troops on the issue is due. Although some senators say they have been waiting for the survey to help determine how they will vote, Sen. John McCain has criticized the survey, saying the Pentagon studied “how to implement a repeal” but should have studied “the effects on morale and battle effectiveness.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who favors repealing the policy, said during a February congressional hearing that the Pentagon study would not look at whether the policy should be repealed but instead examine the “issues associated with properly implementing a repeal.”
Pryor doesn’t sound like he’s going to change his vote.
“You get into housing issues, chaplain issues, there’s just a lot of issues,” Pryor said, according to The Weekly Standard. “Let’s give the military some time to work through some of those.”
In addition to Lincoln, Pryor and Kirk, other senators who are key to the vote include:
— New West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who is viewed as a social conservative. The Weekly Standard reported Manchin “wants to make sure field commanders are involved in the discussion and left open the possibility he would vote against repeal.”
— Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat who voted with Republicans on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the Senate committee. He voted with Democratic leaders in September during the filibuster vote.
— Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snow, two Republicans who are moderate to liberal on social issues.
President Obama wants to see the policy reversed and has urged Democratic leaders to hold a vote, Politico.com reported. The issue has divided the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Chairman Michael Mullen favoring a repeal and the four armed service chiefs apparently opposed to a repeal. James Amos, the new commandant of the Marines and a Joint Chiefs member, told reporters in November he favors the current policy because overturning it would harm “combat effectiveness” and raise privacy concerns.
“There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women — and when you talk of infantry, we’re talking about our young men — laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers,” Amos said, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that’s what we’re looking at. It’s unit cohesion, it’s combat effectiveness.”
Religious freedoms, too, could be impacted if Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is reversed. More than 60 chaplains signed a letter to Obama and Gates, urging them not to overturn the policy. The letter warned that reversing it not only will affect religious liberty but could even impact military readiness and troop levels because the military would be marginalizing “deeply held” religious beliefs. Chaplain (Col.) Keith Travis, chaplain team leader for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, was one of the chaplains who signed it.
“Marginalizing a large group of chaplains … will unavoidably harm readiness by diminishing morale,” the chaplains’ letter states. “Similarly, making orthodox Christians — both chaplains and servicemen — into second-class Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines whose sincerely held religious beliefs are comparable to racism cannot help recruitment or retention.”
Travis told Baptist Press that “there’s a question as to whether our chaplains would be able to offer the full counsel of Scripture to soldiers who seek their guidance” if the policy is reversed.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.