'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Fight Encountered Heavy Military Resistance

During his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama gave a major boost to the campaign to repeal the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy when he called for its repeal. Then a timeless Washington tradition kicked in and the can was a given a swift kick down the road: The Pentagon would study what it would need to do in order to implement repeal and report back on December 1, after the midterm elections.

The gay community, however, wasn't willing to play along. When it became clear to the administration that it needed to act quickly, the can being so far down the road was presenting problems. "I do not support the idea of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell before our military members and commanders complete their review," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a response that makes perfect sense -- if anybody actually takes such reviews seriously.

Into this debacle stepped House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). In the hectic final days of the battle over the military's DADT policy in Congress, he emerged as the central figure in a contest he'd largely stayed removed from over the years. Hoyer bridged a gulf between repeal proponents and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that only seemed to be growing wider as the moment of decision grew nearer.

Gates took very few congressional calls during negotiations, said his spokesman Geoff Morrell, but spoke twice with Hoyer and the "first call was crucial to shaping the compromise that eventually emerged."

Hoyer proposed compromise language to Gates to find out what he could live with, then organized a critical meeting with top aides from the Pentagon and White House, as well as staffers to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Speaker Nancy Pelois (D-Calif.) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.). (House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, who is opposed to repeal, was out of the loop.)

Hoyer's staff had written compromise legislation that was presented to the group on Monday, May 24. "They drafted the version that ultimately, with changes, became what the Pentagon in particular, and the White House and key stakeholders, agreed to be the marching orders going forward," said Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, which was in the middle of negotiations.

"It was really thanks to their work in the end that brought the disparate conversations together into one to ensure that we had a clear sense of where we were going," said Stachelberg, echoing the sentiments of Michael Cole, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, as well as lead House sponsor Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).

"Steny Hoyer gave a six-minute, passionate speech on the floor which I think made everybody on both sides of the aisle stand up and pay attention," said Murphy, sponsor of the DADT repeal amendment. "Secondly, his behind-the-scenes effort was second to none, with our office, over in the Senate with the Lieberman [and] Levin offices."

Katie Grant, a spokeswoman for Hoyer, said her boss got closely involved when it became clear the legislation was moving forward, and worked to get military buy in.

"When it was clear the Senate Armed Services Committee would be acting at the same time the House would consider the Defense Authorization bill, Leader Hoyer felt it was important for the House to act as well on identical language, and wanted to ensure it was done in a way that respected the military while getting the votes in both chambers," she said.

Gates' objection to the course that Congress was on -- full repeal before a Pentagon study was completed -- was laid out in an April 30 letter to Skelton in which Gates said he "strongly oppose[d] any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital assessment process."

That kind of opposition would make it difficult for conservative Democrats to sign on. And it also would have freed up the chiefs of the respective branches, who are more opposed to repeal than Gates, to fire away. "If we hadn't gotten [Gates], I think it's pretty clear the chiefs would've been far more aggressive in their opposition," said one advocate, noting that a letter of opposition from military leaders that was released in the last few days could have done more damage if accompanied by a lobbying campaign.

By the time the review is completed, Democrats may not even be in control of the House -- let alone have a majority large enough to pass repeal legislation. That left the certification compromise as a way out.

"We came up with the idea of a certification trigger when it became clear, talking in particular to House and Senate targets on the Armed Services Committees and other more moderates, that delayed implementation was going to happen," said CAP's Stachelberg, who formerly worked for the Human Rights Campaign.

Some gay activists resented CAP's involvement in the debate, arguing that the gay and lesbian community can speak for itself. Stachelberg said that CAP approached the issue from a national security perspective and worked in coordination with gay groups. "Let's be clear. There are gay groups and there are gay people. So Servicemembers United, SLDN, HRC, Third Way [and] CAP, were the key gay groups working on this, and all of them knew about the certification language and had no problem with it," she said.

One of those people Stachelberg is referring to is AMERICAblog.com's John Aravosis, who was involved in the debate over DADT in the early '90s. He has reluctantly embraced the compromise as better than nothing, but doesn't think it's worth taking credit for. "I get that Winnie and HRC both have a problem with bloggers, but we wouldn't be where we are today if the gay blogs hadn't weighed in. It's usually typical of the people who screwed things up to then accuse everyone else of being less sophisticated," he said. "How sophisticated do you have to be to get a deal that doesn't guarantee repeal?"

Over the rest of the day Monday, Lieberman, Levin, Murphy, the Pentagon and White House signed off on Hoyer's language. Advocates were brought in to the White House to be told of the compromise by Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina. "People were positive," said one person in the meeting of the response to Messina's news. "There was more reluctance on the part of some than others on the language going forward, but at the end of the day you didn't have an option." The meeting included Jim Kessler of Third Way, Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Alex Nicholson of Servicemembers United and CAP's Stachelberg.

A holdout vote in the Senate, Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), wanted 60 days between the release of the Pentagon report and implementation of repeal.

"Senator Byrd wanted the 60 days," said Pelosi in a conference call this week with reporters. "The Senate wanted the 60 days after the report to lapse so [that] there [would] be no doubt [that] there [will] be time to review how this would go forward."

Byrd, in a statement, said that the 60-day wait would allow Congress to weigh in again. (Byrd knows his legislative calendar: 60 days after December 1, Congress will once again be considering a defense authorization bill.) "Byrd was not supportive of the compromise that was initially announced in the media on May 24. Consultations with members of the Leadership, as well as Senators Lieberman and Levin, resulted in the crafting of the Byrd 60-day Congressional review language, which was then presented to others and became part of the accepted compromise language approved by SASC and the full House," said Byrd spokesman Jesse Jacobs.

Pelosi said the House weakened its repeal language to mollify the White House. "The compromise that was arrived at -- our language in the House, as you're probably aware, was stronger language with nondiscrimination clauses in it. It was believed that it was deemed stronger if we had the exact same language as the Senate, and language that the White House would endorse, so we softened our language to meet that standard so there's no doubt there's unity -- House, Senate, the whole Congress and White House, that this repeal will take place," Pelosi said.

Military leaders refused to accept language that would bar discrimination, so the clause was dropped. And instead of repealing the policy immediately, it will remain in effect until the President, Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify repeal, which can't take place until Byrd's 60 days after the report have elapsed.

Byrd's commitment was secured Monday night, said people familiar with the negotiations. Both Lieberman and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had pressed the White House hard over the past year to move with more speed on repeal, spoke with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to secure his support on the committee. Nelson said that it was important to have Gates and the military on board. On Tuesday, satisfied that the Pentagon was not in opposition, Nelson signed on, giving advocates the majority they needed in the committee. Jim Webb of Virginia, a former Navy Secretary under President Reagan, would be the only Democrat to vote no.

The House passed its amendment 234-194 on Thursday night and approved the underlying bill on Friday. The fight now moves to the Senate floor, where Republicans are threatening to filibuster the final legislation.

"There really is a difference between what values are between the parties when it comes to ending discrimination," said Pelosi, who has championed repeal of DADT for years and said that she was so excited the night it passed that she could barely sleep.

Though several months will pass before repeal is complete -- and more gay and lesbian service members will likely be discharged -- Pelosi said that the fight over the policy is effectively over. "I myself have been for a moratorium on discharges for a long time now and would hope that that would be the practice. But this is over, as far as we're concerned. This is over," she said.