The clock is ticking for Congress to act on two important anti-discrimination measures, both contained in the huge defense bill that senators hope to debate before the holiday recess. The first is the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the federal law barring openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the US military. The second would end the ban on women using private funds to have abortions at military facilities.
Last week, The Maine Civil Liberties Union joined a chorus of activist voices calling for US senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to vote for the National Defense Authorization Act, which currently includes both repeals. At a City Hall press conference, Falmouth physician and army veteran Christopher Bartlett described Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as “a waste of human capital [and] a waste of very real capital . . . It seems a very high price to pay for prejudice.”
Snowe and Collins did not vote for cloture — to end debate on the bill and go straight to a vote — when the issue came up this fall (around the time that Lady Gaga appeared in Portland; see “Going Gaga for Gay Rights,” by Deirdre Fulton, September 24). At that time, Snowe said she was waiting to see the results of a Pentagon study on how DADT repeal would affect service members. The report, at the end of November, showed that two-thirds of active troops don’t care if the ban is lifted (opposition was highest among combat troops and Marines). The results of the 10-month study led defense secretary Robert Gates to declare that repealing DADT “would not be the wrenching, traumatic change that many have feared and predicted.” Two days of senate hearings last week only bolstered those claims.
Collins, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, supports DADT repeal, but voted against cloture in September in protest over procedure: “I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments,” she said then.
Her position now remains the same. “Given the opportunity for a full and open debate, I believe that the Senate would repeal this out-dated policy,” she said in statement on Friday. Previously on-the-fence Republican senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts has also said he supports repeal. Both Snowe and Collins have previously stated their support for allowing women to access abortion services at military facilities, provided they are paid for out-of-pocket (federal funds may not be used for abortions).
But with debate over the extension of tax cuts and unemployment benefits and a new nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia eating up the clock, it’s not certain that this Congress will address the defense bill. “I’m not particularly optimistic that they’re going to get this done,” Gates said on Monday.
And with a more conservative Congress coming in 2011, that would be bad news.
“If Congress does not act during the lame-duck session, Congress will not be able to act to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, based on the partisan nature of the debate,” said MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows.