The Next Steps for a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal

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When the Senate failed to break John McCain's filibuster against a defense bill that would repeal "don't ask, don't tell," the chances of ending the military's policy banning open service by gays anytime soon fell drastically. Ever since Obama took office, the conventional wisdom was that Congress had to act before the midterm elections, when political attention would refocus on the 2012 presidential race — and no one, least of all the "fierce advocate" in the White House, would want a potentially risky vote on gays then.

Given that scenario, LGBT advocates are now hoping for a last-ditch Senate vote during December's lame-duck session. That month a major Pentagon report on "don't ask, don't tell" is also due, a set of recommendations regarding repeal that Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, says will likely be "very favorable." With that in place, and "with the President being free finally to speak in a more visible way on this issue, I think this can get done," says Sarvis, whose group is leading the fight for repeal (and is also the one that hooked Lady Gaga up with servicemembers affected by "don't ask, don't tell" at the VMAs).

Of course, that depends on the political will of Harry Reid to bring another vote — and whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will play ball. (The House has already passed repeal of DADT.) Plus McCain, up for reelection but likely to win, will still be around (and he's already hinted at the line of attack he might take against the Pentagon report). Even so, Sarvis puts the odds of a December vote at "bettter than 50-50."

In another tactic, the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT groups are pressing the White House not to appeal a recent federal-court ruling that found "don't ask, don't tell" unconstitutional, "but the likelihood is they will," Sarvis says. (Administrations typically defend the country's laws in court, even if — as in the case of Obama and DADT — they don't agree with them.) And those opposed to lifting the gay ban certainly will appeal the decision.

"Let's not lose sight of what's before us right now: the Senate vote," says Sarvis. "This is where the game is. If we lose it here, we may not have a shot for years on the Hill, and we'll have to grind this out in the court system — and that could be several years as well." Given the stakes, "We have to bring sufficient pressure" on critical senators like Reid and McConnell, Sarvis adds. That's why his group was in Maine with Gaga on Monday, trying to get the state's moderate Republican senators to vote for repeal. (They didn't.)

So might we see Gaga stumping in Kentucky, or Arizona, between now and December? "I have no idea," said Sarvis. "It depends on her schedule."