Attach "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Repeal to Tax Cut Deal

As I write this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is attempting to move forward on the Pentagon budget bill, which includes a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (DADT) of forbidding gays from serving openly in the military. At this point, most Senate-watchers expect it to fail to get the 60 votes it needs to move to the floor for debate (it could always succeed, and surprise everybody, but I wouldn't bet much on the prospect right now). But if Senate Democrats were smart, they'd change tactics after losing this procedural vote. Democrats, led by Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman, should strip the DADT repeal out of the military appropriations bill and, instead, attach it to the tax cut bill being prepared. Because doing so would not only change the entire tone of the debate in a big way, but it might actually work.

Congressional Democrats are fuming right now that the tax deal President Obama worked out with the Republicans isn't much to their liking. It extends the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy for two years, which is seen as a serious defeat for the Democrats' (and, supposedly, Obama's) agenda. It is a defeat, politically, there is no doubt about that. But Democrats in Congress should realize two things about this deal, before deciding what to do next.

The first thing Democrats in Congress should realize is that they bear an enormous share of the blame for how we got to this point -- a much bigger share than President Obama, in my opinion. Congressional Democrats, remember, could have had this grand tax cut debate at any time over the past two years. They failed to do so. They decided the schedule, and they are the ones responsible for punting it all the way to the lame duck session of Congress. Congressional Democrats did this for naked political expediency or sheer political cowardice (take your pick). They didn't want to have the debate during the midterm election season, and now they are paying the price for this timidity -- by having the president step in and do their job for them. If Congressional Democrats thought that they could have put together a better legislative package on tax cuts than what Obama just proposed, they why didn't they do so before the last possible moment? Why didn't they do so during the last possible moment? Democrats couldn't even agree -- as recently as last week -- on what their preferred tax plan was, which is just pathetic.

The second thing Democrats should realize is that the Obama deal actually contains a large "second stimulus" package -- to the tune of $780 billion, in exchange for $120 billion in millionaires' tax cuts. That's not bad, after all the emotional venting the deal caused out on the blogosphere. But it could be even better. And the best way of improving it may just be the addition of an unrelated issue that is near and dear to Democratic hearts -- ending DADT in the military.

Doing so would give a lot of Democrats a strong reason to vote for the bill. It would muddy the water among both Democrats and Republicans, actually. Up until now (and through tonight's expected vote in the Senate), Republicans in the Senate have been holding fast to their promise not to vote on anything before the tax cut extension is passed. Attaching DADT repeal to the same bill would pull the carpet out from under this position.

Contentious issues are often passed in this fashion, I should point out. Without getting too far into the details of parliamentary procedure, such legislation is often amended to other legislation in an effort to get it passed. It happens all the time in Congress, in other words. Both parties do this on a routine basis -- and on vastly unrelated matters. Sometimes the two bills are related, but often they are not. The key is to attach the contentious issue to a bill that is seen as a "must-pass" piece of legislation. Democrats already attempted to do so by throwing the DADT repeal into the military appropriations bill -- which, you would think (in the midst of two wars), would be an absolute top priority for Republicans. Well, that would be true if Democrats were able to demagogue successfully on the issue ("Republicans are voting against supporting troops in the field during wartime!") -- but they are simply not as good as Republicans at this sort of thing.

But now, the Republicans have already proclaimed the tax cut issue the highest priority, which must be passed before Christmas. OK, so let's toss DADT repeal into that mix. Defy Republicans to vote against their signature issue, because DADT is attached to it. Give Democrats who are leery of voting for the tax package a real reason to do so. It would be a lot better to swallow the bitter pill of extending the Bush tax cuts if the same vote would mean getting rid of DADT for a lot of Democrats -- especially if it was presented as the only way DADT was going to get repealed in the foreseeable future.

The deal that Obama cut with the Republicans has yet to be inked. There is no bill awaiting a vote -- it has to be written. There are many ways to attach unrelated issues in the Senate, so Harry Reid should pick one of them and merge the two ideas. Doing so may actually produce a much more bipartisan vote than either one of the bills would get otherwise, as both Democrats and Republicans face the choice of voting for both the good and the bad in the bill (Democrats and Republicans would disagree on what was "good" and "bad," of course, but the mix would certainly be a lot more equal from either perspective).

Would this be a bold move? Yes, it would. Would congressional Democrats be able to make it work? Possibly. Is it bound to annoy Republicans? Oh, definitely so. Would the Lefty Blogosphere hold its nose and support the combined bill? Maybe... just maybe. Would the White House go for it? President Obama has shown that when it gets this close to passing something, he's willing to make just about any last-minute changes just to get something (anything!) on the president's desk for a signing ceremony. So I'd have to say that the White House would indeed go along with the plan, if Senate Democrats forced his hand.

It might not work, I'd be the first to admit. The Republicans will be screaming about "parliamentary tricks" -- even though the practice is as common as overblown bombast is on the floors of Congress. Democrats would need at least a few Republican votes in the Senate to make it work, and Republican senators have stood firmly together so far in the lame duck. But at this point, it may be just about the only chance DADT repeal has left. And it would certainly sweeten the tax deal itself for Democrats. Which makes it worth the attempt.


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