Dreams deferred, fulfilled as Senate takes up two historic votes
Eric Alva was still sitting in his car when he got the news.
The 39-year-old Marine veteran, who was not discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" law but has been fighting for repeal ever since publicly disclosing his homosexuality four years ago, had just finished driving three hours from his home in San Antonio to visit friends for the weekend in Houston Friday morning when he got a call from a colleague from the Human Rights Campaign.
The votes are on, the colleague informed him.
"I didn't even get out of the car," said Alva, who lost a leg to a landmine during the Iraq war. "I just did a U-turn on the I-10 and went back west three hours, and then caught a plane four hours later, and then I was here last night."
To top things off, Alva noted that Saturday's historic vote to repeal the 17-year ban on gays serving openly in the military came on the eve of his 40th birthday. "This is such an overwhelming gift for me," Alva said.
Two other Texans had a different experience at the Capitol this weekend.
Veronica Cervantes, 20, and Marcos Larios, 23, students at Austin Community College, drove 36 hours from Texas to Washington in a minivan with 15 people to lobby for the passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
"My foot hurts," chuckled Larios, who drove the van along with one other person. He and Cervantes said that the group arrived in Washington around 6 a.m. Monday morning, rested for a few hours, and then set out about 9 a.m. to begin lobbying senators for the bill's passage.
Ultimately, the measure failed Saturday on a 55-to-41 vote.
"I see it from a moral stance," Larios said late Friday night. "It's just that this has to happen. I mean, what can I tell my friends? What can they do? This is their hope."
He and Cervantes were among five dozen young people who watched expectantly from up in the Senate gallery as Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Bob Menendez (N.J.) addressed a mostly-empty Senate chamber, appealing for the DREAM Act's passage. Some of the young people were dressed in full graduation caps and gowns; many were clasping their hands in expectation. Cervantes was wearing a Santa hat.
The experiences of Larios, Cervantes and Alva were a testament to the sharp contrasts on display at the Capitol on Saturday for backers of the two pieces of legislation. Supporters of the 17-year-long effort to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" were as jubilant as longtime DREAM Act proponents were dejected. And in both cases, the impact was deeply personal -- even among members of the Senate and the administration.
In a floor speech shortly before the Senate took up its vote on the DREAM Act on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pointed to Durbin's personal investment in the issue.
"I have never known him to feel so strong about an issue as he does this DREAM Act," Reid said, adding that Durbin "has shed tears talking to me about some of the people that he's visited with."
Durbin himself told reporters Saturday afternoon that he was taken by surprise when he looked up in the middle of his speech Friday night to see the 60 or so young people watching him from the Senate gallery. He went upstairs to meet them and invited them into his office, where he signed autographs and showed them his Lithuanian-born mother's naturalization certificate.
Asked why he thought that the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal effort succeeded while the DREAM Act fell short, Durbin paused, then responded: "Both were simple matters of justice, and they both played out politically a little differently."
As the final vote on "don't ask, don't tell" repeal came late Saturday afternoon, the young DREAM Act supporters in the Senate galleries were replaced by supporters of the effort to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Among them were White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was watching the vote along with deputy White House chief of staff Jim Messina, White House spokesperson Shin Inouye, Deputy Director of Public Engagement Brian Bond, and Public Engagement Office Director Christina Tchen.
When the final 65-to-31 vote was announced, Tchen, Bond and Inouye could be seen sharing a silent high-five, while some other supporters in the galleries embraced each other.
After the vote, Jarrett told reporters it was her first time watching a vote from inside the Senate chamber. Asked what she would tell the president she saw on Saturday, Jarrett responded: "A lot of hard work paying off."
"And as he has said often, today we became a more perfect union," she added.
| December 18, 2010; 9:02 PM ET
Categories: 44 The Obama Presidency
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