WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are set to take up a defense authorization bill that includes repeal of the military's controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy Wednesday evening. But as the stage is being set for another dramatic showdown, uncertainty looms as to whether the 60 votes will be there to break a Republican filibuster.
As of Wednesday morning, the end game wasn't clear. There was, it appeared, at least 60 non-concrete pledges from Senators to back DADT repeal, with Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor becoming the latest to reverse course and offer his support.
But while several Republicans signaled they informally support overturning the policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military, they have conditioned their support to procedural processes for passing the authorization bill as a whole. A lack of resolution to the debate over tax cuts and the budget, for instance, may provide a hook to oppose the defense legislation. As would a debate process that prohibited an arbitrary number of, or time for, amendments.
Whether those requirements will be met is truly up to the whims of those laying out the requirements. Early in the day, talks between Democratic leadership and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) over procedural issues hit a snag, the Plum Line's Greg Sargent reported.
Shortly thereafter, however, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn) put out a statement insisting that negotiations with Collins were proceeding in "good faith," followed by a tweet affirming that 60 votes were there to repeal DADT.
Whether the 60 votes are there to allow the defense authorization bill to come to the floor is, of course, a different question. A Republican leadership aide told NBC News that passage of the legislation "won't happen." A Democratic leadership aide, meanwhile, told the Huffington Post that it was "unclear" as of mid-day how the vote would play out.
Faced with the possibility of failure, both Democratic leadership on the Hill and administration officials have begun refining their pitch. Rather than view the defense authorization bill as, primarily, a vehicle to repeal DADT, supporters are pitching the other elements of the legislation that would prove helpful, if not vital, for armed forces.
The line was evident during an interview Lieberman did with Fox News on Tuesday, when the Connecticut Independent (and one of the chief proponents of overturning DADT) urged his colleagues to stay in session as long as it took to get the bill passed.
"I hope we can do that because it would be just outrageous if we don't pass the defense authorization and repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' which is supported, I think, by a strong majority of members of the Senate, because people run the clock out," said Lieberman, "Incidentally, our troops will be working right through the end of the year and beyond because that's what they do for us. We owe it to them to pass this bill — which they need — which they need for benefits that they otherwise will not get."
A White House aide, meanwhile, passed along a fact sheet of the other critical elements that are contained in defense authorization, including (though not limited to) the following:
- Authorizes a 1.4 percent across-the-board pay raise for all members of the uniformed services, consistent with the President's request.
- Codifies the regulation issued by the Secretary of Defense to ensure that all senior mentors employed by DOD are hired as highly-qualified experts and are required to comply with all applicable Federal laws and regulations.
- Authorizes TRICARE coverage for eligible dependents up to age 26.
- Authorizes enrollment in DOD elementary and secondary schools for dependents of wounded, ill, or injured service members residing in temporary housing and service members in temporary housing due to a base housing privatization project, regardless of whether the housing is on Federal property.
- Provides full funding (3.4 billion) for the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP) fund that funds the development, testing, production, and sustainment of the MRAP vehicles and new MRAP All Terrain Vehicles (known as the M-ATV).
- Funds fully the President's budget request of9.8 billion for U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
If Congress fails to pass a defense authorization bill, it would not mean that these provisions were suddenly lost. Nor would it mean that the armed forces were suddenly put in under-funded danger. The money, as Travis Sharp, research associate at the Center for New American Security noted, would be there to keep operations going and the appropriations committee could pass a bill continuing that funding.
But it would also mark the first time in the last 48 years that defense authorization was not passed on time. And it would seriously refigure the balances of power in Congress -- in the process, endangering actually legislative policy, DADT included.
"As long as an appropriations bill passes - whether in the form of an individual defense appropriations bill, an omnibus, or a continuing resolution (CR) - the Pentagon will have funding," said Sharp. "But some of its activities may be limited without passing a defense authorization bill, which affects standing law and policy on important issues such as military end strength, pay, and benefits."
Asked for comment, a staffer to Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that the Senator's "focus right now is on passing the bill and this point we are not entertaining what other scenarios are."