Don't Ask, Don't Tell Don't Vote?

Senate Armed Services chairman Levin fears a vote on repealing DADT policy could fail

by Chris Geidner
Published on February 25, 2010, 7:04pm | Comments

When asked about equality advocates' concern that a moratorium on enforcement of the military's ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy would put off a vote on repealing policy this year, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said on Thursday, ''That's not my concern. My concern would be that the vote on ending 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' gets defeated.''

When asked if that meant the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman had concerns that such a vote would be defeated this year, Levin's response was blunt:

''Yeah, darn right I do.''

Levin made the comments following testimony Thursday morning by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and top military chiefs with the Navy and Marine Corps.

Secretary Mabus, who testified that his personal view was to support the repeal of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' told the senators, ''I think it's important to remember that we have gays in the military right now. It's only a question of whether they can serve openly or not, and I think the chairman of the joint chiefs set out that case pretty well.''

Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval operations, testified – with caveats – that he supported the course of Pentagon review laid out earlier this month by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Of the comparisons being drawn from foreign militaries that allow openly gay and lesbian service, Roughead testified, ''[They] are not us. They do not come from our culture. … That's why this assessment is so important.''

Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, gave the comments most clearly opposed to the Mullen and Gates plan, saying that he thinks ''the current policy works.

''My personal opinion is that unless we can strip away the emotion, the agendas and the politics and ask, at least in my case, do we somehow enhance the war-fighting capabilities of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve?'' Conway said, according to a report in the Marine Corps Times. ''My best military advice to this committee, to the secretary, and to the president would be to keep the law such as it is.''

Reflecting on the testimony heard before his committee and the House Armed Services Committee this week, Levin said, ''You've got an assessment under way, you've got a couple of service chiefs opposed to it maybe altogether, one of them even suggesting he opposes it and doesn't even favor the assessment.''

Noting those issues, Levin told reporters, ''I think there would be great difficulty in succeeding in a repeal vote. I don't favor going to a vote if it's going to be defeated. I think it would be a setback for those of us who think that the program should be repealed.''

The Human Rights Campaign, which today announced that it would be using its ''Lobby Day'' on May 11 to team up with Servicemembers United and have its members and supporters lobby Congress on a full repeal of the policy this year, did not take Levin's comments as conclusive.

''We believe the votes to repeal this failed law can be found and everyone who wants to see 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' end needs to strenuously lobby their elected leaders,'' according to HRC spokesman Trevor Thomas.

Of their lobbying efforts – and noting HRC's decision to send field staff to the ''key states'' of Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, Virginia and West Virginia – Thomas said, ''We're in a position where we're pushing very hard to show him the votes.''

Kevin Nix, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, agreed, calling it ''premature'' to talk about a moratorium.

''Our focus right now is on the full, permanent repeal of the law and getting that in the Defense Authorization bill,'' Nix said. ''I think we need to let this process run its course a bit more.''

In some of Levin's most extensive remarks explaining why, over the course of three hearings in the past month, he has repeatedly pushed a moratorium proposal, Levin explained that he saw a moratorium as both the most practical step at this time and the one most likely to succeed politically.

''That's the problem for me, is getting the repeal approved, so I'd much prefer if we could get a moratorium approved, which is logical to me, once the commander-in-chief says people shouldn't be discharged for simply being gay,'' he said.

''I think there's a real dilemma there for people. When they think about that dilemma, during these coming months before the mark-up, hopefully will lead people to see the moratorium as an attractive position, because it doesn't pre-judge the outcome of the assessment.

''If there's going to be discharges, it delays them, hopefully they won't take place, but at least it's not a setback,'' Levin said. ''The one thing I want to do is advance the cause, not set it back.''

Nathaniel Frank, a senior fellow at the Palm Center who was at the hearing, called it a ''realistic concern'' that a repeal vote could fail, but – unlike Levin – did not leave it at that.

''A vote count is never absolute; this is about leadership,'' Frank said. ''It would help if the president gave more leadership, because people need to get out there and make the case.''

Frank – the author of Unfriendly Fire, a book detailing the problems that have resulted from the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy – was leaving D.C. to do just that, heading to New York City where his deposition is scheduled for Friday in his role as an expert witness in the pending challenge to the policy brought by Log Cabin Republicans in federal court.