Congressional Democrats to Wait on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Posted December 24, 2008 at 12:18am

With Democrats poised to take over the White House and assume even bigger majorities in Congress next year, the gay community and its legislative allies appear to have finally gotten their chance to push through some of their most pressing issues.

But key Democrats — even openly gay lawmakers — are quietly conceding to letting another two years go by before trying to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the controversial 1993 law banning openly gay people from serving in the military. Most fear that moving too quickly on such a divisive issue could backfire, and most would rather tread lightly, at least in the early months of President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both have said the time is right to revisit the policy that Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped implement. But Pelosi, for one, refused to say whether she planned to bring legislation to the floor next year to overturn the law.

Powell said recently that “attitudes have changed” in the 15 years since the law was first installed. Congressional leaders have “an obligation to review the law” and ideally there will be “a very spirited review,” he said, adding, “I’m quite sure that’s what President-elect Obama will want to do.”

Asked to respond to Powell’s comments, Pelosi said last week, “I agree. I agree with Colin Powell.”

Democratic lawmakers regularly beg off questions about the contentious policy, arguing that other issues are far more important — such as winding down the war in Iraq or bolstering the economy. They also remember the political uproar when then-President Bill Clinton used the beginning of his presidency to try to overturn an outright ban on gays serving in the military. That effort tied his administration in knots in his first months in office, and Democrats fear a repeat performance.

Describing the military as “a unique institution,” Powell warned against reversing the policy until it can be fully reviewed by the Joint Chiefs, military commanders and the Defense secretary. He called on Obama to ask the Joint Chiefs to revisit the issue and make recommendations before making up his mind on how to proceed.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) last week said it could still be a few years before anything changes.

“It ought to be re-examined and it ought to be on the agenda, but it shouldn’t be very high on the agenda,” Levin said. “There are just too many other more important things to do.”

The incoming administration is pledging to review the policy at some point, but has signaled that it won’t be one of the first items out of the gate.

“I’m not making a commitment for the administration based on any timetable. But the commitments we made during the campaign to deal with these issues of equity and fairness, we will deliver on in our administration,” Vice President-elect Joseph Biden said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay Member of Congress, also has signaled that overturning the military policy would have to wait. Frank and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), also an openly gay lawmaker, are co-chairs of the recently formed House LGBT Equality Caucus.

Obama “has to set his path on Iraq first before he does gays in the military,” Frank said during a national LGBT Caucus meeting at the Democratic National Convention in August.

At the same event, Baldwin said she hoped for “further progress” on the issue, but highlighted other topics as priorities for the caucus, such as hate crimes and workplace discrimination legislation.

The Human Rights Campaign, arguably the most prominent gay and lesbian rights group, has given Obama a timetable for addressing gay-related issues, including Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

But the group isn’t demanding an immediate repeal. Instead, HRC is circulating a petition that calls on Obama to develop a plan within 100 days to “begin the process” of striking down the policy.

“There is a strategically correct way to go about this,” HRC Communications Director Brad Luna said. “This policy has been in place for a number of years. It’s not going to be repealed overnight.”

Luna said there is consensus in the gay community that there needs to be a “strategy behind how this could be repealed.” This may mean creating a White House appointee in charge of the issue, creating a blue-ribbon panel of experts to study it or holding high-level discussions on the subject at the Pentagon.

Members of Congress “will tell you it’s probably not going to happen right away,” Luna said. “We understand that as a community. We’re willing to spend the time doing the work.”

Asked why the gay community wouldn’t push to overturn the policy immediately next year, Luna said people learned a lesson from the environment in which Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was created: a rushed process.

“We’re pushing for it to get repealed. But in this environment, the goal is to build a consensus around it,” he said.

Last year, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and picked up 149 co-sponsors. Although patience seems to be the consensus among gay activists and many Democrats, Tauscher told CNN in November that she expected Congress to tackle the issue in 2009.

“The key here is to get bills that pass the House and the Senate, that we can get to President-elect Obama to sign, and I think that we can do that, certainly, the first year of the administration,” Tauscher said.