Let's call Tuesday's pitifully embarrassing Senate performance on the defense authorization bill exactly what it was: shameful. They blocked debate because the bill included repeal of the federally imposed ban on gays in the military, a repeal the American people overwhelmingly support. I'm outraged that the Senate used gay and lesbian service members as political pawns.
There's plenty of blame to go around but at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that 43 senators voted to keep this disgraceful ban in place.
Why wasn't the White House lobbying senators for the vote? What happened to "the fierce urgency of now"? From the get go the White House didn't want a vote on the ban until after the midterm elections. They miscalculated how much support nationwide there was for repeal and now they and some of the senators are stumbling over their own timeline. After Tuesday's setback, and some stunning primary results, the political dynamics have changed. It's by no means certain we're going to get another shot in the lame-duck session in December.
While finger pointing is unlikely to serve any constructive purpose, some plain old-fashioned outrage is very much in order. If you don't speak up when both your political allies and opponents do a number on you, one thing is certain: they will do it again. The nation's gay and lesbian troops were expendable in the eyes of the 43 senators who voted against repeal. They thought there would be no price to pay, that we would understand it was only politics and not about the real lives of patriotic service members.
Minorities are used to putting up with benevolent politicians telling us to be patient, the right time will come. No longer. Gay men and women within the military and outside the military won't continue putting up with this same old, same old. What if 10,000 of the 65,000 gays and lesbians now on active duty decided in December they had had enough? What kind of impact would that have on military readiness and morale?
Senator Susan Collins (R-Me) made it clear that she takes her advice on military matters from Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, not from Lady Gaga. Fine, but both made it clear in testimony before her that they had set a course to make this change, and under the proposal before the Senate there would be no repeal until they, along with the President, signed off on it. Nonetheless, Senator Collins voted against proceeding to debate the same bill she voted for in committee. It was a painful, contorted vote and obviously not from her heart.
And how does Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) explain her vote? She was on record for repeal before she voted against it Tuesday. The timing was all. She's up for re-election, she's way behind, and apparently she thinks casting a vote that might be considered controversial back home could cost her votes. Is Arkansas so different from the rest of the country? Do most people there believe it's OK to allow this kind of blatant discrimination to continue?
The failure in the Senate is not likely to be set right until the two leaders, Harry Reid (D-Nev) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), feel they need to reach an agreement on how the debate should proceed. Tuesday senators went at it and the resulting free-for-all wasn't pretty. Minority Leader McConnell showed he could keep his caucus of 41 united even if it meant that senators like Susan Collins and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) had to go against what they had previously supported. The two senators from Arkansas looked like they were caught in a time warp from another era voting against 1960's civil rights legislation.
And then there was Senator McCain whose decision to filibuster brought about this whole contretemps. Anyone who saw his incoherent ranting Tuesday can only wonder why.
The damage has been done; the Senate impasse continues. Only when the Majority and Minority Leaders decide they don't want to preside over the first Senate to fail to pass a bill for our nation's defense in almost 50 years, and the White House makes it clear that repeal this year is a priority for the President, will the damage be repaired.
None of us should forget that every day this law remains in place patriotic men and women who put their lives on the line to defend us all are being discriminated against by their own government.
Our troops deserve better from their leaders.
AUBREY SARVIS, U.S. Army veteran and executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was formerly chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee and later executive vice president for public policy and legislative affairs at Bell Atlantic/Verizon Communications.
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