The gay community got played on Tuesday. The failed Senate vote on the National Defense Authorization Act stalled legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell", leaving Senator Harry Reid as the fall guy and Senator Mitch McConnell to gloat.
The problem here is that it was Senator McConnell who killed the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' It was his job on Tuesday to block any chance for passage of repeal repeal, and he was smart, methodical and tricky. Working with Senator McCain and conservative organizations, the GOP shifted the focus of the debate away from the policies in question and onto Senate procedures. Rather than being framed as a vote on the gay ban, the Defense Authorization vote was portrayed as an issue of process, Senate protocol and party loyalty. This was trick number one. The success of this framing forced good Senators like Maine's Susan Collins to take a bad vote in the name of Senate integrity.
Some have blamed the failure of this vote on the DREAM Act. This is false. Clearly, Senator Reid did not make it any harder for Republicans to run interference with this potential amendment, but the DREAM Act did not cost votes. There would not have been one more 'yes' vote without this amendment.
There were many smokescreens around this vote, but the GOP had only one target - stopping the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' This was damage done by design. Defense funding will not be stopped this year with wars ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will get done in one form or another. But the odds that the Senate's final Defense Authorization bill will include the repeal of the gay ban during a lame duck session are vanishingly small.
Senator McConnell never wanted a deal with Senator Reid. That would have moved the Defense bill forward, and repeal along with it. Instead, he sold some snake oil on the Senate floor in which he demanded at least twenty amendments, a price so high that it could never be accepted. This was trick number two, to look like a deal was on the table when it was not. The rejection of this "offer" reinforced the need for party loyalty among Republicans and allowed activists to argue that it was Senator Reid who was being unreasonable.
This leads to trick number three. Boy, did the Republicans have some fun amendments to offer. Think of the joy that would have filled the Republicans if they could offer amendments on 'anything' and force the Democrats to make more impossibly tough votes forty days before an election. A number of potential wedge issues come to mind, such as forcing a vote on Washington D.C.'s same-sex marriages, immigration amendments, and I've heard something about a mosque. It would have been a free-for-all. Senator McConnell's last motion before that fateful vote confirms this strategy. The twenty amendment deal he offered was a ploy. It banned consideration of the DREAM Act until after all twenty amendments were finished and it would have extended debate indefinitely, much to the Republican's delight.
McConnell dropped the hammer on the GOP moderates. This was a vote for the party, and they held firm. With this stalemate in place, everything fell apart for supporters of repeal when Senator Snowe announced her opposition on Monday, just before Lady Gaga spoke in Maine. Without Senator Snowe, Senator Collins was less likely to go out on a limb. Without Senator Collins (the lone Republican in the Armed Services Committee who voted in favor of repeal), no Republican would go out on a limb. This eliminated Senators Voinovich, Lugar and Scott Brown, so all the Republicans were locked together in opposition.
As for the Democratic caucus, they had tied Senator Reid's hands as well. During the caucus meeting, Democrats made clear that Senator McConnell's attempt to set them up could not move forward. They were already voting on gays in the military and abortion in the current bill, not mention the DREAM Act. Voting on further amendments would have meant tough votes and more time in Washington, two things the Democrats are trying to avoid.
Senator Reid went ahead with the vote, with the outcome looking grim. This was still the right thing to do. This vote mattered and it should be scrutinized. The late arrivals of Senators Lincoln and Pryor to the Senate floor, after the fate of the bill was sealed, allowed them to break with their party in voting against the bill. What was missing on Tuesday was one more Democratic Senator, Senator Kennedy. Senator Kennedy led the fight to end discrimination against gay troops in the military for over a decade, and had he been in the Senate this vote would have been won.
The next step is to clarify what this vote meant and what future votes mean. Tuesday's vote means that discrimination remains the law of the land and discharges will continue. The gay community and the Democrats got played very well on Tuesday. Assailing Senator Reid, who fought for us, is not an accurate accounting of history. It is not correct or right. Senator McConnell killed repeal because that is his job. He is his party's leader in the Senate and twisting arms, like Senator Collins', is in his job description. To be clear, it was the gay community's job to win. We need to do better and we will. Perhaps a bag of tricks will help.
Christopher Neff is the Deputy Executive Director of the Palm Center, where he has worked since 2006. Prior to that he was the Executive Director of Outright Vermont. In 2002, Christopher became the first full-time lobbyist for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He also served on the Board of the Equality Federation of state-wide LGBT political organizations for six years, served as the President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C. in 2006 and started the first LGBTQ lobbyist's group in Washington, the Q Street Project in 2005. Christopher has worked as a congressional staffer for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator John Warner of Virginia. He recently completed a Masters Degree with Honors in Public Policy from the University of Sydney, Australia, where he is currently pursuing a PhD.
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