After Health Care, Will Congress Repeal DADT?

Gay advocates were hardly waiting for health-care reform to pass before pushing for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Just days before the decisive vote, Lt. Daniel Choi, a West Point graduate who is being discharged from the Army for being openly gay, handcuffed himself to the White House gate in protest of what he considers foot-dragging by the Obama administration.

After his arrest and release, Choi told NEWSWEEK, "The only way for full repeal now is to have the president take leadership and put it in the defense-authorization bill."

Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Michael Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they supported Obama's decision to work with Congress to repeal the law. Mullen said that "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do." In the interim, the Pentagon on Thursday enacted new rules making it more difficult to kick gay and lesbian service members out of the forces.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman introduced legislation on March 3 to repeal the 17-year-old law that resembles a House bill introduced by Iraq War veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy. A recent paper by the Center for American Progress argues that "these developments are encouraging. But this is not enough. The president and his national-security team must begin working directly with Congress to enact legislation decisively overturning the 1993 law."

So how to work directly with Congress? It was during the Gates and Mullen testimony that Sen. Carl Levin brought up the defense-authorization idea. "When 'don't ask, don't tell' was enacted in 1993, it was done as part of the Department of Defense reauthorization bill, and this year's authorization bill is the right vehicle to repeal this law that hurts our national security," says Michael Cole, a spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign.

Gay-rights advocate and former Clinton White House staffer Paul Yandura explains why many think the authorization bill is the safest approach. "I appreciate Senator Lieberman showing leadership and introducing a stand-alone bill, but the political reality is that we would need at least 60 votes to pass, while a provision inserted by the president in his defense-authorization budget would require the opponents of repeal to find 60 votes to strip out the provision. This would almost guarantee success. "

However the law is repealed, the Center for American Progress this week proposed an eight-point plan to make the process more efficient, with suggestions ranging from having Congress repeal a ban on sodomy in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and allowing service members who were discharged under the policy to re-enlist, to mandating sexual orientation as part of nondiscrimination training.

Support for the repeal among Republicans is growing. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of self-identified Republicans and conservatives favor allowing openly gay soldiers to serve, up 12 percent since 2004.

But the repeal is still divisive. The Hill newspaper reported that Sen. John McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes that many top military officers remain wary repealing "don't ask, don't tell." "McCain, who is up for reelection in November, could represent a prominent roadblock," the paper said.