If you think the Senate is broken, today's vote to block a defense appropriations bill that carries the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law provides certain proof. And if you don't think so, you might want to reconsider.
By a 57–40 margin, the vote to repeal the bill failed; 60 votes were required for passage. Although it's possible that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can shoehorn it in somewhere in the few remaining days of the session, the policy is now likely to remain in place indefinitely (although Sen. Joe Lieberman, a prime advocate for DADT repeal, says he thinks there will be a stand-alone vote).
Last night Reid put off a vote, ostensibly because there was a prospect of a deal with moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine to secure her approval. When Reid announced the vote this afternoon, Collins seemed stunned and dismayed, and it appeared she would vote no. But in the end, she cast an aye vote, the only Republican to do so.
Pundits and politicians throw around the accusation of "playing politics" so frequently that it's become nearly meaningless. But if there's a case where it's warranted, it's here. Most Americans support repeal of DADT. The secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a majority of members of the armed services back repeal. In fact, more than 60 members of the Senate support it. And yet the bill couldn't get 60 votes.
There's almost no one who is immune from blame. First, the White House probably erred in giving in to demands months ago that the military be surveyed for its opinion. The report came back after the midterm elections, in which Republicans instantly gained one senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and interim Democratic appointee Carte Goodwin of West Virginia was replaced by Joe Manchin, a fellow Democrat who voted no today. Naively expecting good faith may have been a serious misstep—although it's true that several Republicans have come forward in the last few days announcing support.
And that's why senators themselves deserve the most blame. Several Republicans who have publicly backed repeal—in particular Lisa Murkowski, Scott Brown, and Dick Lugar—did not vote for cloture. Their excuse is that they wanted to vote for the bill, but Reid's petty political tactics got in the way. It's an almost funny perversion of the situation that conveniently leaves them out of the equation. The fact is that they effectively voted against a bill that they supported—for no reason other than the politics of giving Democrats the victory of closing debate.
Reid must have miscalculated his strategy, too. On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, it looked as though he had the votes. And since Collins voted aye, despite her misgivings, it's unclear what happened. National Review's Daniel Foster speculates that Reid realized Manchin would vote no and as a result figured he might as well go forward with a vote despite knowing it would fail. As The Washington Post's David Farenthold reported Wednesday, that's his plan on several other issues he knows can't win, figuring that Democrats will at least gain political capital with those issues' respective constituencies. But DADT was one issue that really mattered for many Democrats and ought to have been winnable.
With his no vote, which wasn't expected, Manchin proves his independence from the White House that he sought so desperately to highlight on the campaign trail. It's also likely to make him very unpopular with his caucus-mates. Also in the doghouse: Blanche Lincoln, who didn't vote.
Even before the vote had ended, DADT opponents began calling for President Obama to take action to prevent the expulsion of gay soldiers, sailors, and Marines—a "stop loss" order that bans discharges, perhaps. With Republicans set to gain seats in the Senate and take over the House in the new term, the chances of Congress trying again on repeal are slim to none.
Some Senate Republicans, and some Americans, oppose DADT on principle. But most don't. And it's a disappointing day for all of them when legislation that a majority of Americans and of senators support fails because of political cowardice.