Behind The Scenes: How The Deal To Repeal DADT Got Done

May 26, 2010 6:45 a.m.

After months of being accused by gay rights supporters of not pushing aggressively enough for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, what finally got the White House moving and sealed the deal on a DADT compromise?

From interviews with those deeply involved in the issue over the past few weeks, including people on the Hill and in the advocacy groups in Washington, the picture that emerges isn’t one of a single catalyzing event that suddenly moved the process forward. Rather, according to participants and close observers, there was a confluence of political conditions and practical considerations that gave those pushing for repeal the upper hand in dealing with a reluctant White House.

The final push came from the Hill, where key members of Congress who support repeal, like Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made it clear that they were moving forward with repeal legislation with or without the White House’s blessing.

“Levin and others made it clear that the train was leaving the station and the White House not only was not conducting but they weren’t even on board,” Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy group for gays in the military, said in an interview with TPMDC. “They were backed into a corner and and it was blatantly obvious so they finally decided to get on board.”The Pentagon seemed to confirm that calculus yesterday when it announced that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has been cool at best to repeal would support the compromise deal. Spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that Congress indicated further delay is “not possible,” and as such, “the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”

Numerous White House aides tasked with handling the issue did not return interview requests.

Gates’ preferred approach, seconded by the White House, had been to wait for the Pentagon to finish its study of the policy and the consequences of repeal and then change the law. But that study, announced earlier this year, wasn’t due to be completed until December. Democrats in Congress, however, were no longer prepared to wait.

Another clue to this dynamic came in a letter this from Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), one of the authors of the repeal legislation. “While ideally the Department of Defense Comprehensive Review … would be completed before the Congress takes any legislative action, the Administration understands that Congress has chosen to move forward with legislation now and seeks the Administration’s views on the proposed amendment.”

What made Democrats on the Hill so antsy to get moving? Undoubtedly the looming losses expected in the November elections played a big role. If Congress waited until after the pentagon’s report was released in December, then DADT would be kicked to the next Congress, where Democratic majorities in both chambers are expected to be much smaller.

“Anybody who’s paying attention would realize that’s part of it,” an aide to Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), one of the sponsors of repeal told TPMDC, referring to the political math. “This is our window of opportunity.”

Sen. Levin acknowledged as much, too. Questioned by TPMDC on two separate occasions this week, Levin affirmed two critical realities: Repealing DADT will require action by Congress at some point, and it will be “a lot harder” to take that action if the Democrats suffer significant losses in November.

The White House thus chose what many regard as the path of least resistance. The compromise deal delays the repeal of DADT, making it contingent on sign off from the Defense Department, even allowing for the possibility that future administrations might re-implement the ban. But the key provision from the perspective of supporters of repeal is that the deal changes the law now while the getting is good. That way the White House and Congress aren’t seen to be forcing the Pentagon’s hand but rather simply giving military leaders the tools they need to implement the reforms they say they want.

“The question was, how could we craft a solution respectful of that timeline yet allow for a vote this year?” Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network told Politico. “That was the breakthrough that enabled the White House and DoD to say, ‘We’re keeping faith with the timeline.”

The proposal also isn’t a huge winner among gay activists. After all, it leaves a giant question mark hanging over the question of when the repeal will take place. Groups like Servicemembers were hoping for delayed implementation — guaranteeing that DADT would be repealed by a date certain. The plan now on the table doesn’t do that. And, according to multiple sources, at a White House meeting Monday Obama didn’t offer pro-repeal groups much of a choice. Take it or leave it.

The groups are all on board for now, though there remains some discontent among equal rights activists about the tepid and uncertain approach the White House has adopted. That might explain why Obama was heckled once again last night by a pro-repeal protester in California.

Richard Socarides–a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, now an outspoken activist for repeal–captured the sentiment by calling the proposal half a loaf. “I was expecting to see a bill providing for repeal of DADT now with delayed implementation,” he told America Blog. “As far as I can tell, the proposed legislation instead makes repeal conditional on a future discretionary certification which may or may not occur. It may be the best we can get, and if so, I say let’s grab it. But it is not repeal with delayed implementation. It’s conditional future repeal.”

It’s an Obama-esque approach if ever there was one. But that doesn’t mean it will necessarily secure enough votes to pass. Though Maine moderate Susan Collins (R) has backed the repeal plan, her Massachusetts colleague Scott Brown (R) is a big “no” and a number of Armed Services Committee Democrats remain on the fence about it.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has said he thinks the previous plan–to delay legislative action until after the DoD finishes its review–is important and shouldn’t be pre-empted by politics (though he stopped short of outright opposition).

Other Democratic swing votes have yet to weigh in. Their willingness to sign on may very well depend on how serious Obama is about actually changing the law now–and how willing he is to persuade these senators to vote yes.

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