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The Advocate: Pentagon Budget Key to DADT Repeal

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Posted on Advocate.com January 05, 2010 06:05:31 PM

Pentagon Budget Key to DADT Repeal
Washington insiders say the prospects for repealing DADT increase significantly if the Defense Department includes the policy shift in its budget. But will the White House push for it?

By Kerry Eleveld

The likelihood of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” this year may hinge on whether the Department of Defense includes the policy change in the budget recommendations it sends to Capitol Hill every spring.

“If repeal looks as though it’s happening because the military is asking for it, then it has the greatest likelihood of succeeding,” said Dixon Osburn, cofounder and former executive director of the repeal lobby group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

One Capitol Hill veteran, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added that a Pentagon endorsement could hold particular sway in the Senate, the most problematic chamber. “If it’s in the DOD authorization, not a single Democratic senator has said they would vote to take it out,” said the source. “I'm hard-pressed to believe that Democrats would vote with the GOP to strip it out.”

But if ending the gay ban is not in the Pentagon’s original bill and repeal has to be added as an amendment, the source suggested that could shift how senators view the vote. “That's a whole different dynamic — then it becomes not a vote to support the administration, but a vote to go against the Department of Defense.”

The Defense Department sends its budget recommendations to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees sometime between late February and early April, but people with knowledge of the subject say the White House and the Pentagon confer closely on what will be included or discarded in the document.

“Folks at the Department of Defense have said the Defense secretary is prepared to put repeal in there, but he is waiting for instructions to do so from the White House,” said the anonymous source. “The real question is, What conversations is the White House having with the senior military and the Department of Defense to put it in there?”

The president also submits an overall budget to Congress every year no later than the first week of February.

Osburn called the corresponding budgets, as they pertain to Defense, “body lateral,” in that the documents mirror each other.

“I don’t think the Defense Department would put anything in there that the president had not signed off on,” said Osburn. “And I don’t think the president would put something in that had not been discussed with the Defense Department.”

Most insiders agree that the leadership at the Pentagon will not willingly engage the issue of repeal unless they are directed to do so by the White House. The current executive director of SLDN, Aubrey Sarvis, began advocating for those discussions in mid December.

The anonymous source agreed: “Left to their own devices, they will kick it down the field, which is why it will take some political leadership.”

But the source does not believe that either Defense secretary Robert Gates or Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen is presenting pointed resistance to the policy change.

“The push-back is coming from senior military folks, not Mullen or Gates,” said the source, naming Gen. James T. Conway, head of the U.S. Marine Corps, as a key detractor. The Washington Times reported last fall on Conway’s opposition to ending the policy.

One unknown is where National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones stands on the subject at this point, though last fall he said that President Barack Obama should wait until “the right time” to overturn the policy.

A second anonymous source, a former congressional staffer with knowledge of the Hill, said people at high levels in the White House are aware of the budget issue, but the task of completing health care reform has not left much space for them to focus on how to accomplish repeal or when to do it.

“I think they are still buried in health care, but I am getting more signals that they may push this year,” the source said.

Overall, the source added, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” has more resonance than other LGBT issues and is seen as a political win by many at the White House — not just for gay advocates, but for the larger progressive movement.

The first source emphasized that having repeal included from the outset in this year’s Defense authorization budget would significantly increase chances for passage because it would send a signal that the Pentagon supports repeal. That would soothe lawmakers like senators Jim Webb of Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Evan Bayh of Indiana, all of whom have indicated they would defer to the Pentagon on the matter.

But Osburn offered a more rosy assessment of an amendment’s prospects in the House, which is expected to hold hearings on the matter this spring.

“If there’s a consensus and a majority who approve repeal in House, there will be plenty in the Congressional Record that shows it's time to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” he said.

Osburn added that the Senate could be problematic regardless of which approach is taken.

“There’s been no debate in the Senate, there’s not even a bill in the Senate, so I worry about building the consensus there that’s necessary,” he said. “But regardless of what DOD does, Congress still has the opportunity to include it.”

Eleveld is The Advocate's Washington Correspondent. You can follow her twitter feeds at: http://twitter.com/kerryeleveld.

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