Defense bill includes immigration, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ measures

Senate Democrats plan to push key policy objectives, including a repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military and an immigration measure, by linking them to a must-pass defense bill coming before lawmakers this week.

The annual defense authorization bill provides a 1.4% pay raise for troops and $725 billion for the Pentagon, including $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democrats have added a provision that would abolish the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and want to add the so-called Dream Act, which would provide a route to citizenship for youths who are in the country illegally.

Both political parties have used the authorization bill in years past to advance other legislative goals, and it would be unusual for the military spending plan to fail. But the process has become politicized, especially in the limited time remaining before Congress adjourns to campaign full time.

Senate Republicans vowed to filibuster the bill, accusing Democrats of using it to woo voters. “To pursue a social and legislative agenda to galvanize voting blocs, I believe, is reprehensible,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised that the Dream Act would constitute the first amendment to the defense bill. Under the act, young people who are in the country illegally could become eligible for legal residency after attending college or serving in the military for two years.

The measure appeals to Latino voters, whose turnout will be especially important in the Western states where Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are in tough campaigns to retain their seats.

Backers cheered the attempt to win passage.

“We’ve been at a stalemate for far too long,” said Mike Gibbons, chairman of the board of the National Restaurant Assn., which supports the immigration measure. “This is a great first step for us.”

The House has yet to take up the Dream Act.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, enacted in 1993, has been targeted by President Obama for repeal, and a federal judge in California this month declared it unconstitutional. Under the proposed legislation, repeal would take effect 60 days after completion of a Pentagon report on steps needed to ensure military readiness. The report is due in December. The House passed the repeal in the spring.

On the eve of Tuesday’s vote to advance the measure, musician Lady Gaga headlined a rally to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in Maine, whose two Republican senators could be key votes.

“Equality is the prime rib of America,” she said, urging Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to share “the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer” with gays and lesbians in the military.

She advocated discharging homophobic soldiers instead of gays.

“If you are not honorable enough to fight without prejudice, go home,” she said.

Although Snowe and Collins oppose “don’t ask, don’t tell,” they both said in statements Monday that they would side with GOP leaders, CNN reported.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supports repeal. More than 13,500 service members have been discharged under the policy for being openly gay, experts say.

Advancing the defense bill would require 60 votes. With Democrats controlling 59 Senate votes, Republican support would be needed. At least one Democrat, Jim Webb of Virginia, has opposed including the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, but has not indicated how he will vote Tuesday.

Final passage would not be expected until a lame-duck session of Congress after the November election.