New Life for 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal?

This post was updated at 6:14 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 15

The House passed a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell Wednesday evening, potentially breathing new life into Democrats' efforts to end the policy as time runs short for big legislative efforts.

Onus for ending DADT now rests on the Senate, which will now strain to hold a vote on DADT before the lame-duck session ends. If Congress doesn't repeal DADT by the end of 2010, it's unlikely that the policy will end anytime soon, as Republicans assume majority of the House on January 3.

77 percent of poll respondents support repealing the policy, according to the most recent polling from ABC News, as does Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The Senate will likely take up DADT next Tuesday at the soonest, according to a Democratic leadership aide.

But the upper chamber has a busy schedule ahead of it. After passing a deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, on Thursday the Senate will resume work on an omnibus spending bill to continue funding the government. If South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint adheres to his demand that the entire bill be read, Senate action will likely be pushed back by two days. After the omnibus, the Senate will resume work on the New START treaty this weekend (barring DeMint's demand); that leaves little time before Christmas to clear procedural hurdles and vote on DADT, the DREAM Act immigration bill, and a previously failed health care bill for 9/11 first responders. The Senate is considering a brief return between Christmas and New Year's.

If DeMint forces a reading of the spending bill, DADT will be pushed back dangerously close to Christmas Day, with the Senate potentially unable to consider it until a hasty intermittent session the following week.

In other words, time is the limiting factor, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could be forced into some tough choices on which bills, DADT included, can be wedged in before the next Congress is sworn in.

The House pursued a new strategy on DADT Wednesday, after two failures this year by the Senate. The novel approach: voting on DADT as a stand-alone bill.

The Senate failed last Thursday to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as Democrats couldn't get 60 votes to bring it to a final up-or-down vote. The repeal was included in a Defense authorization bill, which the House had already passed. Republicans voted against it, they said, because they were not allowed to debate or vote on Defense amendments unrelated to Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Which posed an obvious question: Why not just bring up DADT on its own?

That's what the House did Thursday, while Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have cosponsoring the same bill in the Senate. Collins, significantly, was a principle objector to moving ahead with DADT repeal the last time, but it was the lack of debate on unrelated amendments, not DADT itself, to which she objected.

After the House vote, the Senate will consider DADT on its own--if Senate leaders can find the time.

The rationale for packaging DADT with the Defense bill went like this: Congressional leaders and the White House had decided earlier this year to do it that way, out of fear that poison-pill amendments would shoot down a DADT-only bill.

"You can't take a piece of legislation like this to the floor as a stand-alone," Jim Manley, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman and communications adviser, said two weeks ago. "It'll attract amendments from all corners of the right-wing firmament."

Gay-rights measures are always controversial with social conservatives, who would do their best to kill it by attaching hot-button provisions on anything that would divide the Senate and bring it all down, so the logic went. Senators couldn't, however, attach poison pills to the bill that funds the U.S. military. It has to pass, at some point.

There's one thing that never made total sense about this reasoning: As Senate majority leader, Reid has the power to preclude amendments from being added. It's called "filling the tree," and Republicans do not like it when Reid does this, because it mutes them and prevents the supposedly ever-collegial Senate from doing its senatorial work and tweaking legislation as it sees fit.

If DADT is to be repealed in the next two weeks, that's what Reid will probably have to do, and we'll soon find out if a stand-alone bill is viable.

Now that the Pentagon's internal review task force has officially recommended repeal, concluding that there's minimal risk in ending DADT, there should be more than 60 senators who support an end to this policy. Some had signaled willingness to end it only after that review was published. Now, it's out, and concerns over Defense amendments were the only blockage--though Democrats didn't really take Republicans for their word that this "excuse," as some Democrats called it, was being offered in earnest.