DADT repeal: 18 days in December
Rare is the occasion in which a president and a nation get to revel in affirming their fundamental principles. And that's exactly what happened on Dec. 22 when President Obama signed the bill that will pave the way to ending the 17-year-old ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. Don't ask, don't tell was a wrong-headed and discriminatory law that destroyed careers and compromised national security. Good riddance.
There have been many pieces chronicling how we arrived at that auspicious day. Christopher Geidner at MetroWeekly wrote about the "Long, Hard Slog'' to DADT repeal through the reflections of those at the center of the fight. Marc Ambinder's "insider account" has that Taylor Branch quality that makes you feel like you're sitting in the front row of history. But his writing doesn't get into the drama of the 18 days between the release of the Pentagon Working Group's comprehensive review of DADT and its final repeal. Every day, sometimes twice a day as the archives will attest, I wrote about the latest wrangling and did quite a bit of prodding and pleading along the way. And in the hurry to tell the story there were parts of the story that weren't told.
Greg Sargent, who also had a running commentary during the 18 days, gets at some of it in his paean to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his role in getting DADT repeal passed. But it leaves out the role of luck (one part political, one part sad), the never-say-die attitudes of activists and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the "oh hell no" push back from Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) when Reid's staff was pushing her under the bus, and the unheralded leadership of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
The Conspiracy Theory
None of what I will tell you really matters now. The Senate did its duty and did away with DADT before the courts forced the military to do so. While advocates were cautiously optimistic about repeal's chances, the caution was warranted. An e-mail I received from a source on background in the early hours of Dec. 1 -- the day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released their report on DADT repeal -- laid out a troubling and plausible scenario.
We're hearing from two independent, credible sources that a horse trade has been made and agreed to among all the players including the White House. The deal is that Kyl will drop his hold on START in exchange for the defeat of DADT and the Dream Act. So there will be a show vote next week on NDAA that will fail, and then Kyl will drop his hold and START will come up for debate. Defense Authorization may then be pared down and moved forward in some way. We're also hearing that [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell told the Republican caucus that he expects 100% party-line discipline on the cloture vote on NDAA unless and until DADT repeal and the Dream Act are dropped.
This was entirely plausible because while the White House did want DADT repealed, we all knew ratification of New START was the president's number one priority.
Even with the negative second day of testimony from the service chiefs, the Dec. 2 and 3 hearings on the Pentagon report buoyed hopes that DADT would be repealed as part of the defense authorization bill (NDAA), which has passed every year for the last 48 years. But the calendar was getting in the way. Reid made it clear he wanted out of Washington on Dec. 17. Obama was due to leave for Hawaii on the 18th. And a Nov. 29 letter signed by the entire Republican caucus in the Senate informed Reid that any legislation that came up before the chamber dealt with the Bush tax cuts and the spending bill during the lame-duck would be torpedoed. On Dec. 7, a deal was reached between Obama and congressional Republicans on tax cuts and unemployment benefits. By Dec. 8, the behind-the-scenes haggling between Reid, Collins and Lieberman over amendments and debate time on NDAA burst into the open.
The Phone Call with Susan Collins
Activists I follow on Twitter were claiming on Dec. 8 that Obama wasn't putting pressure on Reid or Collins to get DADT done. So I reached out to the White House to inquire. Just before I went on MSNBC that day, around 12:15 p.m., I received a call from a member of Reid's staff. "Collins is being unreasonable," the staffer told me, adding that Reid was offering her 15 amendments (10 for the GOP and five for Democrats). The demand for unlimited debate was a nonstarter because of a fear that conservative senators would use that time to kill it. The White House emailed me a statement on the president's actions at 12:59 p.m.
The President has been reaching out to Senators from both sides of the aisle to reiterate his desire to see Congress pass the National Defense Authorization Act, including a repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', during the lame duck.
My game of phone tag with Collins ended around 1:35 p.m. or so that day. Collins was "enormously frustrated" that "Reid's staff keeps blaming me for keeping [NDAA] from coming to the floor." With exasperation, she would later say, " I am the only Republican to go into Harry Reid's office, which makes me a pariah on my side, and his staff says I'm negotiating in bad faith?"
I asked Collins what she thought of Reid's amendment offer. She informed me that she first heard of Reid's offer through an e-mail from Lieberman at 1:35 p.m. She said she was fine with the amendments deal but wanted Reid to double the amount of time for debate to one hour of debate for each side per amendment. Collins was none too appreciative of being thrown under the bus and was thankful for his statement defending her. It was about five minutes to two when I asked Collins what the majority leader's response was to her counteroffer. "I was writing him the e-mail when you called," Collins said with a laugh, "and I have a meeting at two."
"Write him back," I said in mock exasperation. "Get off the phone with me!"
The Cloture Vote
Dec. 9 was a day of dread. Word had leaked out the night before that Reid was going to go call a cloture vote on NDAA. DADT repeal was doomed no matter what happened. Call the vote before work was done on the tax cut deal and watch Republicans set to vote for the repeal sit on their hands. Don't call the vote and watch the calendar fill up with other pressing items, such as the new START treaty.
After aborting an attempt to call the vote in the morning, Reid did so in the afternoon and heaped praise on Collins for her efforts to broker a compromise and slammed the Republicans for doing everything to scuttle a deal. But she wasn't there to hear it. Collins burst onto the floor after seeing that Reid was calling the vote and more publicly made her case for a "reasonable" amount of time to debate the amendments on DADT.
The cloture vote would fail 57-40. Collins bucked her party and voted "Yes."
As DADT repeal was going down like the Hindenburg, Collins and Lieberman were already working on a stand-alone bill right there on the Senate floor. By the afternoon, S.4022 was introduced. Of all the routes to get rid of DADT, the legislative process was always best. But there were still concerns that the Senate with its arcane rules would find a way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Enter Steny Hoyer
At the Dec. 9 holiday party at the office of Steve Elmendorf, the high-powered Democratic lobbyist who was a senior adviser to then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) for 12 years, Hoyer was buttonholed by Allison Herwitt, the legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign. According to an ear witness, she "chewed his ear off as to why the House had to go first to cut down on the procedural mumbo-jumbo in the Senate."
While Collins and Lieberman spent the weekend (Dec. 11 and 12) cobbling together senate support for their stand-alone measure, sources tell me Hoyer was working the phones, including calling a few Republican senators. Pelosi had already gone on record on Dec. 10 saying that the House would take up the issue again if the Senate sent over a bill. By Monday, Dec. 13, Hoyer decided that the House would go first by voting on a bill sponsored by himself and the man (pictured) who worked the halls of Congress for more than a year to secure passage of a repeal measure back in May, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).
Despite all this action, the troubling and plausible scenario from the wee hours of Dec. 1 appeared to be playing out. An e-mail I received from a source on background on Dec. 13 served to reinforce my disquiet.
McConnell, [Arizona Sen. John] McCain and [South Carolina Sen. Lindsey] Graham apparently went to the White House and told the officials there that they would be willing to let START go forward if the White House did nothing more on DADT. The White House took the deal, Reid agreed and what you saw play out on the Senate floor Thursday was Reid trying to bring DADT to conclusion. It didn't work.
Reid expected Senator Collins to be ok with being labeled the bad guy and for her to roll over. He was amazed that she would rush into the Senate chamber and defend herself so forcefully. He was even more amazed when Lieberman told him that he was going to introduce a stand-alone bill with Collins as his co-sponsor. He has been shocked by how much negative press and editorials he has gotten from his pretty transparent actions and may now want to push Republicans on the spot and advance a bill to the floor just to see what happens.
Another source -- not within the Obama administration -- also knew about the McConnell, McCain and Graham meeting. But there was push-back on the idea that the White House took the deal. "They just listened," the source said.
Taking advantage of a bad situation
The Hoyer-Murphy bill to repeal DADT was introduced on Dec. 14. As I explained that day, the beauty of Hoyer's move was that, once the bill passed -- which it did 250 to 175 on Dec. 15 -- it went to the Senate as a privileged motion. Harry Reid was compelled to move on it, and the measure would require only one cloture vote.
Two things happened on Dec. 16 that gave Reid the opening he needed to act. In the early evening, the Senate leader yanked the omnibus spending bill off the floor after Republicans blocked efforts to pass it. He then filed cloture motions for the Dream Act and DADT repeal. What gets little attention in the repeal timeline is that earlier that day Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced that he had early stage prostate cancer and would have surgery on Monday, Dec. 20. That would mean one less "yes" vote for DADT repeal if it weren't brought up soon for a vote. Wyden is recovering nicely, we hear.
So, this is where I agree with Sargent's props for Reid. The majority leader saw an opening and successfully took advantage of a bad situation. But it would not have been successful if senators put party or ideology above equity and fairness.
'This is done!'
On Saturday, Dec. 18 at 11:44 a.m., DADT repeal mustered 63 votes to clear the filibuster hurdle. Within less than an hour, the Senate announced that the final vote would be held that afternoon. At 3:30 p.m., DADT was repealed by a final vote of 65 to 31, including Wyden, Collins and seven of her fellow Republicans.
At a packed bill-signing ceremony at the Interior Department, President Obama said, "For we are not a nation that says, 'don't ask, don't tell.' We are a nation that says, 'Out of many, we are one.' We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. Those are the ideals that generations have fought for. Those are the ideals that we uphold today. And now, it is my honor to sign this bill into law."
Surrounded by the political leadership that helped make the moment possible, Obama signed the repeal of the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. With the stroke of a pen, a slap of the desk and to thunderous applause, the president declared, "This is done!"
| December 31, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories: Capehart | Tags: Jonathan Capehart
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