Democrats Finally Deliver on a Gay-Rights Promise

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Updated 7:12 p.m.
The clock has almost run out on House Democrats' time in power in Washington, and in the waning days of the 111th Congress their Senate colleagues rushed to take advantage of the lame duck House majority to make good on a major legislative promise -- while also failing Saturday to make headway on another.

The military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy will end, as Senate Democrats won over a handful of their Republican colleagues to support a repeal Saturday morning, first breaking a filibuster with 63 votes and then sending a bill to President Obama's desk with 65 "yes" votes Saturday afternoon.

Obama will sign the repeal into law this coming week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

The conclusion of the long drama over DADT comes after two years of sometimes-rocky relations between gay-rights activists dissatisfied over the administration's failure to move faster on DADT and marriage rights.

Obama came into office promising a White House friendly to gay rights, but activists were frustrated that the new president did not move swiftly to repeal policies instituted under the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Obama has at times been difficult to interpret, from a gay-rights perspective, dating back to his campaign, when he said repeatedly that he defines marriage as something that happens, exclusively, "between a man and a woman." His Justice Department has defended the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which Clinton signed in 1996.

Even as he welcomed gay-rights activists to "your White House" for a reception in June of 2009, some gay-rights leaders groused privately over the administration's policy stances. A prominent activist who attended the reception described it as a feel-good event that did little to advance a policy agenda.

This post was updated at 3:58 p.m. on Saturday.

Gay-rights activists openly heckled Obama at a Democratic fundraiser in Los Angeles this past May. When asked about the heckling, organizers of gay-rights groups said they understood where it came from.

Obama tried to avoid preaching patience, since gay-rights supporters have seen DADT as an indefensible civil-rights violation, and asking DADT's opponents to wait patiently did not sit well. But there was little he could do, other than work slowly. Activists initially demanded that Obama reverse the military's policy unilaterally, and the administration spent its first months explaining the hard reality that DADT could only be ended by Congress.

Now, the promise to gay-rights activists has been delivered, and another could be on the way. As DADT ends, the court challenge to California's Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban looks promising as it advances through federal courts.

On their two main policy points, DADT and marriage, gay-rights activists are on the cusp of victory.

Saturday's vote followed a shift in legislative strategy by Democrats, ending the convoluted process that led to DADT's ultimate repeal.

Democratic leaders and administration officials had decided, earlier this year, to attach DADT's repeal to a Defense authorization bill. Republicans, they reasoned, would have a harder time attaching poison-pill amendments to a bill to fund the U.S. military.

But that plan failed shortly before August recess, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called up the larger Defense bill for a hasty vote before lawmakers returned home for a month of campaigning. Reid also attached the DREAM Act (which failed Saturday on its own), and the August vote was seen by more than a few observers as a political move to put Republicans on the record against these policies, perhaps energizing the Democratic Party's liberal base before the midterms.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen appeared on the Hill to support a repeal. Republicans demanded a Pentagon review of the policy, and they finally got it on November 30, as an internal working group found minimal risk in ending the policy. Gates and Mullen returned to the Hill in the first week of December.

But the same legislative strategy failed again, as Republicans continued to object that Reid wouldn't allow consideration of enough unrelated Defense amendments. Reid tried to gain 60 votes to end debate on the Defense bill last week; he was unsuccessful, and the vote failed.

So Democrats shifted strategy. The House passed a stand-alone bill to repeal DADT earlier this week. The Senate moved forward Saturday, and now DADT will finally end.

Gay-rights activists, finally, have good reason to be pleased.

"This is the defining civil right initiative of this decade and today's bill passage would not have been possible without Harry Reid's determined leadership," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of the influential Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

"And finally, without commitment and a clear plan from the White House for the Pentagon's Comprehensive Review Working Group, we would not stand here today. I have no doubt the February testimony of Sec. Gates and Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, would not have happened without the President," Sarvis said.

It's a fitting note to the conclusion of ultimate Democratic rule in Washington, as the party has satisfied a key activist element of its base, a minority constituency that the party has wanted to heed, for years, on principle, but whose needs they've have been slow to address because of political difficulties. With Republicans taking over the House, Democrats have succeeded at the last minute; had they failed, it's likely DADT would have lived on for several years at least.

Expect another feel-good reception at the White House when President Obama signs this bill.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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