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Don’t ask’ repeal, immigration reform proposal hit obstacles

Updated Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 | 5:32 p.m.

Sun Coverage

The effort to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy got derailed Tuesday after the full Republican caucus banded together to block the progress of a must-pass measure to authorize military spending – a development that promises to have consequences on the campaign trail, and maybe even on the battlefield.

Republicans largely painted Tuesday’s 56-43 vote on the motion to proceed to the bill – not enough to achieve the 60-vote supermajority needed to avoid filibuster – as a referendum on the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prevents gays from serving openly in the military, and was part of the underlying defense authorization bill.

But by not even opening the floor for debate on the enormous annual spending package to fund various military programs and campaigns, “no” voters have set Congress up for a potential result it hasn’t seen for almost 50 years – the possibility that Congress will not pass any defense authorization bill at all.

That would mean no money for increased benefits and bonuses to military members, no acquisition of new systems, and no funding for various pending construction projects – because Congress must pass an authorization package for those projects before appropriators can fund them.

Republicans held rank as a party to oppose the bill, and were joined by Arkansas’ two Democratic senators, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to “no” at the last minute – a procedural move that allows him to bring the bill back up for another vote at a later time.

But that isn’t expected to happen until after the election – effectively killing Democrats’ ability to gain the mileage they had hoped would come from a positive vote on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and passage of the DREAM Act, a measure that would offer a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the country as children and enroll in college or enlist in the military.

Democrats had settled on the annual defense authorization bill as the legislation to carry the repeal of DADT and the DREAM Act because it is considered a must-pass piece of legislation, and because both measures would widen the pool of potential military recruits.

Off the Senate floor, many Republicans strongly support both of those initiatives. But in the close run-up to an election season, politics appeared to trump policy for both sides Tuesday.

The fate of the bill was sealed Tuesday morning, when Sen. Susan Collins of Maine – the only Republican to vote for the defense authorization bill inclusive of a repeal of DADT in committee – said she would not cast a vote in support of the bill, despite her continued belief in the legislation, because Republicans weren’t being allowed to present amendments.

Reid limited the opening cache of amendments to three – a vote on stripping the DADT repeal from the legislation, followed by the DREAM Act, and finally, a measure to end the practice of Secret Holds – a method by which any one Senator can indefinitely stall legislation without having to publicly own up to, or take heat for, doing it.

“Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks,” she said.

In the end, with two Democrats splitting off to join the Republican opposition, Collins’ vote wasn’t decisive. But the near-perfect split down party lines nonetheless opened up the Senate to the sort of interparty vitriol that has been dominated the character the campaign trail.

Opponents of DADT, led by Senate Armed Services committee ranking member John McCain, centered their criticism of the measure around the argument that the provisions are not relevant to a defense spending bill – and that DADT in particular runs counter to the wishes of military personnel.

“I’m not opposed to the principle of bringing up this defense bill,” McCain said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “What I am opposed to is bringing it up now, before the Defense Department has concluded its survey of our men and women in uniform.”

The Department of Defense has been conducting a survey, expected to be completed in December, of military members to study how best to implement a repeal of DADT – which Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen support.

But in making their argument, Republicans focused on a statement from the quartet of heads of the military branches, indicating a preference for waiting on the survey before pushing ahead with a repeal – and accused Democrats of rushing ahead on the legislation to play to their base on the campaign trail.

"In Senator Reid and the Democrats' zeal to get re-elected, this is a cynical ploy to galvanize and re-energize their base," McCain said. "I've never seen such cynical use of the needs of the men and women of our military and national security as Senator Reid and Senator [Carl] Levin [of Michigan] are doing ... It's a cynical act that appears to be to try to salvage a losing campaign."

Democrats, for their part, pounced on Republicans for refusing to even open the defense spending bill for opening discussions an amendments – despite the fact that they would have a final cloture vote to block the bill from moving forward after amendments had been discussed or adopted.

“We cannot allow filibusters to prevent us from getting to bills,” Levin said after the vote. “This certainly is a very powerful argument for why we should change the filibuster rules relative to the motions to proceed.”

Coincidentally, the Senate committee on Rules and Administration is expected to hold its fifth meeting in a series of hearings on legislative proposals to change the Senate procedures governing filibusters.

In a surprising twist, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a unanimous consent agreement moments before the scheduled vote, under which the Senate would have proceeded to the bill only if Democrats agreed not to raise any immigration-related amendment – even one entirely tailored to the military – in the first roster of 20 to be considered.

That reticence flies somewhat in the face of logic floated by conservatives, which that debate on immigration plays right into the hands of the Republican base, as measures to offer citizenship, even delayed citizenship, to illegal immigrants is easily interpreted as “amnesty.” Even Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters Tuesday that a lack of cohesion among Democrats on immigration matters would mean he’d need at least five Republicans to split from their party if the DREAM Act were to stand a chance of passing – a high price in a Senate where only six of the lawmakers who supported the legislation through past Congresses in non-election years remain in the body.

Though they disagree on the legislation, pro-immigrant and pro-enforcement alike acknowledge that the illegal immigrants that stand to benefit from the DREAM Act are perhaps the most sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants, having come to the United States as minors and petitioning the government for documentation in order to go to college or enlist in the military.

“The DREAM Act was supposed to be the easy part,” Durbin said Tuesday.

The failure of the DREAM Act especially has potential implications for the Reid, who is facing a fight for his political life in Nevada against Sharron Angle. Many assumed that the Reid campaign was taking a risky step out with the DREAM Act not simply to fulfill a policy promise, but to make a play to excite the Hispanic voters in his base.

But the DREAM Act never got even close to coming onto the floor Tuesday, and Reid offered his own harsh words against those who voted against even opening up the defense authorization bill for debate.

“Republicans are again playing politics with our national security,” Reid said. “I’m disappointed that my Republican colleagues put partisan politics ahead of the best interests of the men and women who courageously defend our nation. Democrats will continue to fight for our troops and will work to ensure that our troops have the resources they need to do their jobs.”

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  1. This is pure politics, plain and simple.

  2. gotjobs:

    Get real!! Gays have been defending this country since the Revolutionary War. So for over 200 years, it's been mostly "don't tell".

  3. "Dont ask..." is just as bad as saying I need a black person to cook/clean for me, and a mexican to do my gardening. No difference.

    On the topic of Gay's. Canada and other countries allow Gay Marriage, has it changed the economy? Are there more gay kids in school? No no and no. Nothing has changed. America needs to stop being such a "damn fear-mongering of the unknown" country.

    In regards to the road to citizenship. I think that's a brilliant idea. If someone wants to fight for America for 4 years or whatever (ACTIVE), they damn well should get a citizenship - Its more than most born Americans have done for their country.

    I also believe they should provide citizenships to students that come here and graduate with top marks in any phd or equivalent program. Why would we spend $$$ and time teaching the best, just so they get kicked out after and go work for and benefit another country??! Never made sense.

  4. Blanche and Lincoln are idiots. As well as all Republicans that voted against it. Did any vote for it?

  5. lol. So I don't follow politics. They're all idiots!

  6. As usual, this is about Harry and nothing else. Harry was just being a weasel.

    Cheap, cheap stuff not allowing debate on the entire bill. It is not as though there was a big push from the White House or the Dems for this. Where is the statesmanship in this?

    As the Senator from Maine, she is hardly a cheap hack and has been support of trashing DADT policy.

    BTW--Senate Rule 22-Filibusters--needs to go. This will ensure that neither the majority nor the minority can hide behind the threat of a filibuster. I haven't seen Harry step up to allow a vote on that.

  7. GBigs:

    Here is what happened as reported in the NY Times and reported very well by the way.

    "Senate Republicans voted unanimously to block debate on the bill -- the huge, annual authorization of military programs -- after the majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he would attach a number of the Democrats' election-year priorities to it while also moving to limit the amendments offered by Republicans."

    "The vote was 56 to 43, with Democrats falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and take up the bill. The Arkansas Democrats, Senators Blanche L. Lincoln and Mark Pryor, sided with all 40 Republicans present in opposing debate. Mr. Reid switched his vote to no at the last minute, a procedural maneuver that allows him to call for a revote."

  8. gbigs:

    The Dems. couldn't muster enough to overcome a filibuster which is why the matter was shelved. They won the vote 52 to 46.

    You are enough to try anyone's patience.

  9. oops 56 to 43.

    (@atdleft--yes, we need to get our facts right--pun intended)

  10. The Dems should have let the republican filibuster for a while, say to November 2, but didn't.

    That would have been the ethical thing to do if they care so much about this bill.

  11. The Party Of No,
    Doing what they do...
    Just saying NO.

  12. xtra (and everyone else), "trusted commenters" are people who have gone through our verification process to let us know who they actually are or have proven themselves trustworthy by their past comments. There will be a full story in the Las Vegas Sun and on this site tomorrow explaining things in more detail.