LGBT groups gear up for today’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal fight

The Senate Armed Services Committee goes into room 222 of the Russell building today at 2:30 p.m. to mark up the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill. Until members emerge at 9 p.m., it’s a black box of information for determining the contours of the half-trillion-dollar-plus piece of legislation, including the fate of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-Conn.) amendment to repeal the military’s ban on open gay service, an amendment strongly supported by Colorado’s Mark Udall. The coalition of LGBT-rights organizations pushing to secure passage in the committee and then later this week on the House floor are trying as hard as they can to lock down votes by mid-afternoon before the Senators gather behind closed doors.

There’s going to be a rally/press conference on the Hill at 11 a.m. with six veterans, five of whom were either discharged or chose not to re-enlist because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” urging senators and congressmembers to vote for repeal. Veterans are going to deliver 20,000 pro-repeal postcards to Congress — focusing mostly on the Senate. Specifically, the coalition – comprised of groups like Servicemembers United, the Human Rights Campaign and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund — continues to target six states represented by undecided or wavering legislators: West Virginia, Virginia, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Indiana and Florida. Already, its released polling in those states that show scrapping “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has wide support.

In advance of a complementary House floor vote later this week, the coalition sent an email alert yesterday asking 750,000 people around the country to email their members of congress in support of repeal. It’s going to send another one today asking them to phone member offices. The idea is to escalate pressure, capping off a build-up of several months that’s brought veterans affected by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — and those who just believe overturning it is the right thing to d0 — to key states and districts.

That effort got the White House to acquiesce to the strategy on Monday, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to reluctantly accept the legislative push on Tuesday. But it’s not won over every member of Congress it’s targeted. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) saw 77 percent of Massachusetts voters backing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, but the new senator — a lieutenant colonel in his state’s National Guard — said yesterday that he’s voting against Lieberman’s amendment. So is Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Marine veteran of Vietnam and a former Navy secretary, even after the coalition sent a letter from Virginia servicewomen urging him to support repeal. Both claim that Gates’ original plan — to hold off legislative efforts at repeal until a Pentagon working group on its implementation issues guidance to him in December — ought to proceed. Over in the House last night, the chairman of the armed services committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), made the exact same argument as his grounds for opposition.

The coalition believes that the Senate committee still has a significant number of undecideds, soft-yes and soft-no votes. (For what it’s worth, I’m not going to give my own whip count, because I don’t believe that’s journalistically responsible in a fluid situation like this one.) But it’s also used to setbacks, even though the legislative compromise provides perhaps the best shot for repealing the law since its enactment in 1993, and that speaks to the resilience of the activists who have pushed the White House, Congress and the Pentagon this far already.

“This is one of the best opportunities for repeal that has come around,” said Michael Cole of the Human Rights Campaign. “The fact that you have congressional leaders supporting it, the president supporting it and Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen saying it will do what they want in respecting the working group, the stars have aligned for putting repeal closer to reality than ever.” If the votes are there.

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Spencer Ackerman

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