Even as the legal limits of "don't ask, don't tell" are tested in a federal courtroom in Tacoma, Democrats in Congress are making the same policy a part of their closing argument to voters.
Congress has about three weeks left before going home to finish campaigning for the Nov. 2 election. With Republicans holding a seeming advantage in supporters’ enthusiasm, Democrats are scheduling votes on gay rights and immigration that could excite their own base.
Incumbent Democrats who are fighting for their political lives, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, will get a chance to debate and maybe even vote for the measures, while showcasing GOP opposition. Murray’s Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, criticizes both measures and says they’re distractions from the economy and taxes.
Repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on openly gay troops, is part of a defense policy bill Democrats plan to take up starting Tuesday. Wrapped up in the same debate is legislation to give legal status to people who came to the United States illegally as children, once they go through college or military service.
“Two of the large constituencies of Democrats that have probably shown the most frustration have probably been the gay and lesbian community, and Latinos,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor who directs The Washington Poll. “So I think it’s clear those issues are in the bill to try and make some inroads there. But … it’s very difficult to deliver on policy in October and expect to get people riled up for November.”
‘WHAT’S THE HURRY?’
“Patty Murray seems to be worried about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I’m more interested in getting people back to work,” Rossi said in an interview Thursday.
Congress should do that, he said, by extending all of the Bush administration’s tax cuts.
Murray wants to extend those for the middle class but supports President Barack Obama’s proposal for the cuts on income above $250,000 to expire. It may be the biggest clash between the parties as Congress winds down its pre-election work, but for now it will wait for consideration of the defense bill.
Rossi said “don’t ask, don’t tell” appears to be working and that a decision should be put off until the Pentagon finishes a study of the potential effects of repealing the policy on gays, scheduled to be released Dec. 1.
“What’s the hurry, Sen. Murray?” he asked.
The defense bill has made its way though Congress like any other bill and must pass this year, Murray explained last week. And she denied any pre-election rush.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has been an issue for a long time, as well as the ability for immigrants who have gone through our schools” to serve in the military, she said.
Some people don’t see enough hurry. Two years into control of both the White House and Congress, Democrats haven’t delivered on promises to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
They’ve had plenty on their plate, with a floundering economy and a lengthy national debate over health care. But some 13,000 people have been discharged from the military for being gay since the policy’s start in 1993, including at least 240 since Obama took office, the American Civil Liberties Union says.
That list includes Maj. Margaret Witt, a flight nurse from McChord Air Force Base who is challenging her dismissal from the Air Force Reserve in a trial that started last week in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. It comes after another federal judge in California found “don’t ask, don’t tell” unconstitutional.
Calls to wait for a study’s results are “a stall mechanism,” said a supporter of repeal, retired Army nurse Candace Plumlee of Gig Harbor. For more than 20 years in the military, Plumlee said, she had to hide her relationship with a woman for fear it would end her career as an officer.
“You’re not able to talk about your family,” she said.
Plumlee doesn’t blame Democrats for putting repeal on the back burner. She’s glad to see it may come forward at last.
The House passed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal proposal this year. The defense bill in the Senate would put off repeal until after the study is done and military leaders – who support repeal – have signed off.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled the defense policy bill to come to the Senate floor Tuesday, but it will probably need 60 supporters, including some Republican help.
It will be even tougher to amend it to add the immigration measure to the bill.
Rossi said the so-called DREAM Act looks like “a backdoor amnesty.” It’s another proposal Congress shouldn’t be working on at a time of economic distress, he said.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group trying to stop illegal immigration, says the proposal would take college slots away from citizens. The group accuses Reid, D-Nev., of trying to help his own re-election prospects in a state with a heavy Hispanic population.
But supporters of the DREAM Act emphasize the bill is limited to certain immigrants 35 and younger who were 15 or younger when they entered the country illegally.
Murray supports the DREAM Act as part of the larger bill set for debate this week.
“It’s our hope we can get it done quickly and move on,” she said.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org