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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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