Is The White House Stalling DADT Repeal In The Senate?

December 16, 2010 1:36 p.m.

By now, you know what’s standing in the way of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal in the United States Senate, the last obstacle before it can be signed by the president and the military’s ban on openly gay service members is finally scrapped.

Or at least you think you do.

Sources on the Hill are telling me a big reason DADT repeal isn’t moving faster comes right from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Despite President Obama’s public support for repeal, with DADT stacked up against the START nuclear arms reduction treaty that Obama carefully brokered with the Russians earlier this year, the White House is putting its legislative push behind START.

At this point, with more than the 60 votes secured to invoke cloture on a repeal bill in the Senate, obstacles to repealing DADT legislatively are a simple combination of time and priorities. Time is short in the lame duck session, and DADT repeal is just one of many items the Senate would like to address before it adjourns. Where repeal slots into the remaining legislative calendar, and how much time is left in that calendar when it does pop up, will make the difference between repealing the ban and keeping the status quo.

No one questions that Obama wants to see DADT end, or that he wants to see it end this year. The concern is over the priorities: Obama, it seems, wants START to come first. And with the White House pushing START (in daily phone calls from top White House officials, according to one source on the Hill), Obama could end up standing in the way of DADT getting done.“The White House has been crystal clear that their number one priority in this lame duck session is START,” said one Senior Democratic aide.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who’s been pushing for a vote this weekend on DADT repeal, told MSNBC Thursday that the START treaty would still be ratified by the new Republican-heavy Senate that will be sworn in on Jan. 5 — and thus isn’t as pressing as DADT during the lame duck.

DADT repeal may pass the new Senate, but its prospects are a lot less assured. And besides, whatever bill the next Senate passes (if it does pass a bill) would have to be approved by the new Republican-controlled House, where the chances for repeal are expected to be really grim.

With that in mind, Lieberman said, DADT really should come first. His spokesperson, Erika Masonhall, put the position succinctly.

“The votes for repeal will be there,” she said, referring to the current Congress. “Why delay the vote any longer?”

I asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer about the White House’s role in moving repeal forward during our interview Wednesday night. He reiterated the president’s strong support for repeal but wasn’t quick to offer examples of how the White House has helped it move through the legislative process in recent days.

“I’ve talked to the White House, I know they’re for this [standalone bill] and they want to see it passed,” Hoyer told me. “I can’t speak to their specific actions.”

At the daily White House press briefing Thursday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the DADT repeal vs. START priority question. Gibbs dismissed the claim that Obama hasn’t been flacking repeal on the Hill, claiming that Obama “has been on the phone with…members and senators on this very important issue.”

“The Pentagon study didn’t happen out of thin air,” Gibbs said, referring to the survey of active-duty servicemembers that showed most saying repealing DADT would have no major impact on the military. “It was a process that started as a way of measuring the attitudes of those, as the President understood and realized, that either legislatively or judicially the policy was going to end.”

“There’s an effort to get this done if we have time to do it,” Gibbs said.

Still, the White House told me, they’re “not going to speculate on timing.”

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