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‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal rejected in the Senate

Legislation to repeal the ban on openly gay personnel in the military was blocked in the Senate on Thursday, dealing a blow to a top White House priority and underscoring the emerging boldness of congressional Republicans.

With just days remaining in this session of Congress, supporters of lifting the 17-year-old military policy could not overcome a GOP pledge to block all legislation in the Senate until a stalemate is resolved over the unrelated issue of extending expiring tax cuts.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a leading proponent of the bill, said he was disappointed to see the measure fail, knowing that the necessary 60 senators who supported the repeal were committed to its principles of equity.

“This afternoon, process triumphed over those principles,” Lieberman said after the vote.

Repeal advocates swiftly seized on a plan to hold another vote. Lieberman said he and Sen. Susan Collins (R- Maine) would introduce another bill immediately.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to hold a vote in this Congress, an aide said. But a new bill would require approval in the House, which had already approved the measure voted down by the Senate.

Although Lieberman and Collins said they were confident they had the votes for another try, they acknowledged that they were running out of time in a lame-duck Congress where tempers are running high and members are anxious to leave for the holidays.

“We’re not kidding ourselves. This is not going to be easy,” Lieberman said.

A repeal would likely falter in the GOP-controlled House next year. Meanwhile, lawmakers believe a court-ordered repeal is coming and would be harder and more disruptive for the military to implement.

“Today, leaders of both parties let down the U.S. military and the American people,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We encourage all senators to expeditiously take up this bill and pass it quickly so that the military has the power to implement a repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

Lieberman said the Senate should remain in session through the holiday season to pass the bill, which he calls the civil rights issue of this era. More than 13,500 officers and enlisted personnel are estimated to have been discharged under the rule.

“It’s ain’t over, until it’s over,” Lieberman said. “As far as the effort to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ it ain’t over.”

The 57-40 vote came after days of behind-the-scenes negotiations and a massive advocacy campaign. A Pentagon report released last week showed that repealing the Clinton administration policy would not substantially disrupt the military while troops are fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A majority of the troops support changing the policy.

President Obama made direct appeals this week to senators, and several key GOP senators, including Collins, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska support lifting the ban.

But GOP senators had argued for more time to consider the broader defense authorization bill, which traditionally undergoes revisions through amendments and requires several days of debate on the floor.

The broader $725-billion bill includes a 1.4% pay raise for troops and $159 billion to continue funding the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Failure to pass it would be the first time in more than 40 years such legislation was not sent to the president by the end of the year.

Yet with tensions running high on Capitol Hill amid the GOP blockade on legislative action during the tax cuts stalemate, Reid swiftly called Thursday’s vote over the objections of supporters in and out of the Senate.

Lieberman and Collins, the lead negotiators, described themselves as surprised by Reid’s decision to call a vote on the bill Thursday afternoon. Lieberman said he’d been warned by Reid that pressure to complete other priorities, including a new START nuclear treaty with Russia, might force a vote before the tax cut deal was settled.

Collins said she was forced to end a conference call abruptly and rush to the floor. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a supporter of the repeal, came rushing from her dentist’s office, Collins said. Lincoln arrived too late.

Three senators were absent. Collins joined most Democrats in advancing the bill, and newly seated Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) voted no. The House passed the measure in the spring as part of the defense bill.

“We need to match our policy with our principles and finally say that in the United States, everyone who steps up to serve our country should be welcomed,” Reid said.

Failing to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” before Congress adjourns would be a setback for the president, who promised in this year’s State of the Union address to lift the ban.

Obama said he was “extremely disappointed” and placed the blame on a minority of Senators willing to filibuster.

The president’s priorities have faced uphill challenges in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the waning days of Congress. Earlier Thursday, Reid abruptly backed off a vote on the Dream Act, a bill that would establish a path to citizenship for some young immigrants who are in the country illegally.

The White House and some Democrats have pushed hard for the measure in recent days. The House passed a version of the bill late Wednesday.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com


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