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'Don't Ask Don't Tell' becomes battleground in defense bill

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Senate Democrats Monday were scrambling to come up with enough votes to block a GOP filibuster of a bill that would repeal the policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military.

The measure that would end the “Don't Ask Don't Tell” law is attached to the $726 billion defense authorization bill that is scheduled for a critical test vote Tuesday afternoon. The legislation is essential for setting the Pentagon's spending levels for next year, but it may stall, according to a top senator.

Republicans have blasted the “Don't Ask” provision along with two other controversial amendments Democrats want to include in the bill — one that would provide a path to citizenship for children who came to the United States illegally, and another that would allow abortions in U.S. military hospitals.

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“I don't know if the votes are there,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., admitted to reporters Monday. “I hope they are.”

The committee's top Republican, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is leading the opposition against the repeal of “Don't Ask.” He told The Washington Examiner, “I will do everything I can” to block its passage. McCain said he is opposed to the measure because he believes it pre-empts a Pentagon survey of military personnel on the impact of lifting the ban that is due in December.

“I feel very strongly that we should wait and not take any action on this controversial issue until we hear from our troops on what they think the impact of repeal would be,” McCain said on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., may have to come up with at least two GOP votes to reach the 60 needed to begin debate on the bill. Democrats control just 59 votes and Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., remained undecided Monday, according to his spokesman, Will Jenkins.

Activists who support the repeal are focusing on Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Maine Republicans, who are also undecided. Pro-repeal activists staged a rally Monday in Portland, Maine, headlined by pop phenomenon Lady Gaga.

If Democrats can clear the cloture hurdle, they will have another fight on their hands. The defense funding bill also contains an amendment called the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant children who attend college or join the military.

A similar measure was defeated in 2007 by Republicans and Democrats alike and many of those Democrats remain undecided about the matter, while some Democrats say they will vote against it, including Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Nelson is also opposed to a provision in the bill added by Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., that will end the ban on abortions in military hospitals that has been in place since 1996. Nelson voted against the Burris amendment in committee and said he will work to strip it out of the legislation if the bill makes it to the floor for debate, rather than try to block the whole bill on Tuesday.

Nelson supports the amendment to end “Don't Ask,” said his spokesman, Jake Thompson. “In a military that places high value on honesty and integrity, this policy encourages lying and deceit,” Thompson said.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com



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