By: Jonathan Allen and Josh Gerstein
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a clear message on the White House's plan to change the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy: Don't wait.
Lawmakers, aides and gay rights activists are crediting the California Democrat and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) with forcing the White House, key congressional players and Defense Secretary Robert Gates all to sign off -- with varying degrees of enthusiasm -- on a bifurcated plan that would lift the policy later.
“The speaker was determined to go ahead, and so was Carl Levin,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay members of Congress.
“My plan was to go forward with it if we had the votes,” Levin said, referring to a big “if” that still looms.
The White House approach -- to conduct a review but hold no votes until after the November election -- became untenable to some gay rights activists after Republican Scott Brown won the race to succeed Sen. Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts earlier this year. Activists worried that Democrats might not hold strong enough majorities to pass a repeal after the 2010 midterm elections.
“There were some pretty serious discussions with the White House that there's an imperative here to move this along this year,” one activist said. “They knew the landscape had clearly changed. The problem was [that] Secretary Gates was of the mind-set that he had arrived at an agreement with the White House, and he was obviously representing many different constituencies back at the Pentagon, and it's not easy to change.”
Pelosi and Levin saw this year's must-pass defense authorization bill, wending its way through both chambers this week, as the perfect -- and legislatively appropriate -- vehicle for the repeal. Levin floated the idea of vote now, repeal later earlier this month.
In a May 17 conference call, Pelosi told a phalanx of gay rights groups that she was committed to ending the don't ask, don't tell policy by the end of the year, according to participants. At a fundraiser for Equality California last Friday, she proclaimed she felt “quite certain” that the policy would “be a memory come Christmas.”
On Monday, Pelosi's aides and other congressional staff huddled with aides from the White House and the Pentagon to hammer out acceptable legislative language and the details of a letter exchange between proponents of repeal and the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget -- the keeper of administration legislative policies.
At the same time, according to a Democratic leadership aide, gay rights activists were meeting with officials at the White House.
The letters, released by the White House on Monday night, make clear that the administration's original plan -- to wait for the results of a Pentagon review before pushing for a legislative repeal of the policy -- had fallen by the wayside. That approach would have spared conservative lawmakers a tough vote on reversing the policy -- which some argue would help keep the Democratic majority. But it frustrated gay rights activists who have been upset with Democratic leaders for not addressing their legislative agenda as quickly as they desired.
“They got the message, I think, actually really from Pelosi that [Congress was] going to try to do this with or without the White House. ... They could be part of it or not be part of it,” said Richard Socarides, liaison to the gay community under President Bill Clinton. “She figured if Congress tried to get something done and failed, the White House would be blamed. If it tried to get something done and succeeded, and they stood on the sidelines, they'd look like jerks, and it would sort of make the president look bad. It was her leadership and her willingness to be out in front on this at the end that forced their hand.”
The proposed language in the House and Senate -- supported by OMB -- would execute a repeal of the policy upon certification by the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a review of the policy had been conducted and that military readiness, effectiveness, cohesion, recruiting and retention would not be harmed by the implementation of the repeal.
By Tuesday morning, Defense Secretary Robert Gates's spokesman said Gates was on board.
“Secretary Gates continues to believe that, ideally, the DoD review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the don't ask, don't tell law,” spokesman Geoff Morrell wrote. “With Congress having indicated that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”
It was a crucial reversal. In an April 30 letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Gates had written, “I strongly oppose any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital assessment process.”
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the first Iraq war veteran elected to the House and the sponsor of the repeal amendment, said Gates's original letter was a setback. But, he added, “paratroopers don't quit.”
In his own letter exchange with Gates earlier this month, Levin secured a reiteration of Gates's belief that the Pentagon's review of the policy is aimed at determining “how,” not “whether,” to repeal.
Levin, Murphy and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) worked on amendment language that would satisfy gay-rights groups, the White House and the Pentagon.
“I think it's a fairly elegant solution,” said Kevin Cathcart of Lambda Legal. “It looks like it could pass, which I was not so sure about with the broader, original repeal.”
He said the reaction from gay rights activists “depends on if they have any faith in the president and Pentagon” on the matter. “It would clearly be better if the policy would be repealed, effective yesterday,” he said. “But I want a finish line I can see that's going to change things and enable gay people to serve, and I think this compromise will do that. I think getting Congress out is really a critical step.”
Several activists expressed disappointment with Gates's lukewarm statement of support -- issued through a spokesman.
“The secretary can't have it both ways, and the White House can't have it both ways,” said Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Sarvis said the White House wanted to take steps toward repeal but was hemmed in by the timeline it agreed to with the Defense Department to keep the policy in place until a report expected in December.
“They were in a box, and the box was the timeline,” Sarvis said. “The question was, how could we craft a solution respectful of that timeline yet allow for a vote this year? At the end of the day, extraordinary power was given” to the Pentagon.
“That was the breakthrough that enabled the White House and DoD to say, ‘We're keeping faith with the timeline,'” Sarvis said.