So What Happens Next for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’?

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said they supported repealing the military’s ban on openly gay soldiers. Now that the dust has settled on this stunning turn of events (Mullen’s firm support even startled advocates for repeal), how might a repeal play out? The Pentagon is kicking off a yearlong review to study the best way forward, but that’s not stopping activists and members of Congress from going ahead legislatively. Here are five scenarios to watch out for over the next several months.

1. Enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” continues to loosen. During Obama’s first year in office, discharges of gay soldiers fell by a reported 30 percent. Expect that trend to continue, given Gates’s remark that “we have a degree of latitude within the existing law” to apply the policy more fairly. Sources have told journalists that this may already be under way. There could even be legislation introduced to institute a moratorium on discharges, a possibility Senator Carl Levin noted at the hearing.

2. A repeal provision could be included in the upcoming 2011 defense-authorization bill. This was how the federal hate-crimes bill passed last fall after a decade of Capitol Hill limbo. This strategy is “our hard push right now,” says Ben Mishkin, an organizer and policy advocate at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, one of the main groups behind repeal. The defense bill is typically introduced in both chambers in the spring.

3. A Senate bill could materialize and pass. Despite Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s efforts (she recently unveiled an online “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” story project), there’s not yet a standalone bill for repeal in the Senate. If the defense-bill strategy doesn’t work, a couple of members of the armed-services committee — maybe Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins (the two names usually bandied about) — might come together to introduce legislation. “It needs to be seen as a military-readiness bill,” Mishkin says. But author Nathaniel Frank warns of Lieberman’s right-wing streak: “There’s concern about what compromises he might make.”

4. The current House bill could pass. Representative Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from the Philadelphia area, told Rachel Maddow that the bill he’s spearheading now has 187 co-sponsors, and commitments from another two dozen lawmakers to vote for it if the bill makes it to the floor. Those numbers put the bill in spitting distance of passage, and Murphy, Congress’s only Iraq war vet, would like to see that happen this year (as he also told Maddow).

5. Nothing could happen this year — or for the rest of Obama’s term. Congress’s summer recess is essentially the cutoff for action, and with Democrats facing midterm-election losses in both chambers, repealing the ban could be put off indefinitely. “It’s undeniable that the political climate will become tougher after November,” Mishkin says. “We have a window of opportunity now that we should take advantage of.”

So What Happens Next for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’?