Over the weekend, the military leadership began weighing in on the post-election landscape for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Although the decision to be made is a legislative one and one that President Barack Obama supports, the military leadership's support -- or opposition -- has played into support for and opposition to DADT repeal throughout the year. The next steps from military leaders could spell another challenge for repeal efforts or breathe new life into the chances of completing repeal in the lame-duck-session of Congress.
On Saturday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters, "I would like to see the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' but I'm not sure what the prospects for that are," according to the Associated Press. The AP report noted that Gates said Congress should act in the lame-duck session to do so.
The comments came on the heels of comments from the new Marines commandant, Gen. James Amos, who said Saturday that combat is "intimate" and that this intimacy makes him uncertain of the impact of repealing DADT on "unit cohesion" and "combat effectiveness.
According to the Associated Press, Amos said, "There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women – and when you talk of infantry, we're talking our young men – laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers. 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."
Back in May, it was at this point in the legislative process -- right before congressional action was thought to begin happening (and did happen) -- when all of the service chiefs issued letters questioning the timing of the amendment being considered in both chambers' Armed Services committees.
As Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) told Metro Weekly at the time, "I think there's a measure of respect here that goes to the service chiefs." A person lobbying Republican offices said at the time that the service chiefs' letters "killed" attempts to get GOP votes.
Now, however, with only a few weeks remaining until the Dec. 1 date when the Pentagon working group looking at DADT repeal implementation is supposed to have its report into Gates, the views of the service chiefs may be seen by some members of Congress as relevant once again.
They also may have changed.
With preliminary reports about the survey of servicemembers suggesting that opposition to openly gay and lesbian service is not as widespread as some of the service chiefs have suggested, and with questions about the ongoing appeal of Log Cabin Republicans v. United States as the background scene, it is not clear that -- despite the comments from Amos -- all of the service chiefs would be willing to send a similar letter opposing lame-duck passage of the repeal amendment.
Why would they change their views? First, the review is to end before the lame-duck session ends. Second, one or more of the service chiefs could have made a determination over the course of the review that repeal would not harm the military. Third, the review could have convinced one or more of the sevice chiefs that any issues raised by repeal could be easily addressed or otherwise mitigated. Fourth, the possibility of a court-ordered end to DADT -- and the very uncertainty that comes from ongoing litigation -- could convince one or more of the chiefs that legislative repeal now is best.
The people in the military leadership to watch in the next few days, then, are the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen -- who made a strong statement in support of repeal before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February -- as well as Army chief of staff Gen. George Casey Jr., chief of naval operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Air Focre chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.
If Amos stands alone in the military leadership as speaking out against DADT repeal in the lame-duck session -- or if Casey, Roughead or Schwartz speak out in favor of lame-duck repeal -- the momentum for action in the lame-duck session could get a major boost. If Amos finds his comments echoed in coming days by his colleagues, repeal advocates will need to confront that reality with political strength in order to offset the military leaders' comments.
Regardless of the comments of the military leadership, however, the action needs to come from Congress, and the Senate is the body that needs to pass the National Defense Authorization Act in the coming weeks in order to get the bill through a conference committee with the DADT repeal amendment intact, passed by both bodies and signed into law before the end of the 111th Congress.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) need to decide whether they have the political will, and Republican support, to move the bill -- with or without the support of the military leadership.
As Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said in a statement on Sunday, "If the President, Majority Leader Reid, Secretary Gates, and a handful of Republican senators are committed to passing the comprehensive defense bill, there is ample time to do so."
The level of their commitment to ending DADT -- with or without the support of the service chiefs -- will become clear as the 111th Congress, and Democratic control of both chambers, comes to a close over the next two months.