12/14/2010 03:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

DADT Repeal Could Come Down To Obama-McCain Proxy Battle

WASHINGTON -- The decision by congressional Democrats to put forward a standalone repeal of the military's ban on openly gay servicemembers may pit President Barack Obama against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in a reprise of the 2008 presidential election rooted in procedural tactics and influence peddling.

On Tuesday, House lawmakers breathed life into a legislative vehicle pronounced dead on several occasions, announcing that they intended to split off a repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy from a larger defense authorization bill and pass the standalone bill along to the Senate. Where it goes from there will likely depend largely on which party and player applies the most pressure.

"I'd be surprised if it doesn't get out of the House. I never know what's going to happen over it the Senate," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in an interview on MSNBC. "Things have died over there that I thought ought to have passed, so I don't know, but it will get out of the House today."

In the Senate, there are currently myriad scenarios under which a standalone repeal could either pass or fail. But several sources -- both Republican and Democrat, on the Hill and off -- conveyed the sense that the bill's fate rests on two main questions: Whether McCain, who has spearheaded the opposition to repeal, will be able to delay or torpedo the measure through amendments, and whether Obama will dive into the trenches to help Senate Democratic leadership corral the votes for passage.

"I think we have a strong chance to change that policy before the end of the year," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday in a show of support for standalone repeal.

By virtue of procedural maneuvering, Senate Democrats may not need 60 votes to bring a DADT repeal standalone to the floor. The version passed by the House is known as a "message," which in turn is treated as a privileged matter by the Senate. That means lawmakers in the upper chamber can simply adopt it on their own convenience, though they will have a window for debate -- likely 30 hours -- and they will need to overcome a filibuster to end that debate and pass it into law.

A Republican Senate aide, however, disputed the idea that cloture would not be needed to start debate.

In a wide range of interviews with individuals working on Senate strategy, the path forward has begun to emerge. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will push to bring the bill to the floor sometime early next week, a Senate leadership aide said, ideally with legislation on tax cuts and the budget complete. Reid may have to fill the tree with amendments -- thereby setting in stone how the debate process plays out. But if he does this without accommodating Republican requests, it could give senators the cover they need to oppose the measure on procedural grounds.

More likely, Reid will grant the GOP a chance to air its proposed amendments and hope that they lack the support to stick. If one does pass, the bill would have to be sent back to the House, prolonging the repeal process or even threatening it, depending on the changes.

"Is it an ambitious strategy, yes," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran who serves as executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "But it is a viable option, a realistic one."

If amendments are offered, Sarvis predicted that they would come from McCain. One would likely be a measure to effectively strike DADT repeal from consideration, as well as an amendment to expand the certification process for the law's repeal beyond the president, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

McCain, Sarvis said, "has indicated that there should be additional surveys and studies. We expect him to introduce these or any so-called apple pie amendments, all of them with design to stop the process in his tracks."

An email to a McCain spokesman asking which, if any, amendments the Senator might introduce was not returned. When The Huffington Post approached McCain on Tuesday to ask how he would vote on a standalone repeal bill, he replied, "It hasn't come up yet. I don't deal in hypotheticals."

Not all DADT repeal advocates view the Arizona Republican as a make-or-break player in the forthcoming debate. One high-ranking official at a pro-repeal organization called the McCain "yesterday's news."

"Don't get me wrong, he is still an opponent that should not be underestimated," the official added. "But, really, the game right now is to get this to the floor for consideration."

With respect to that task, the burden rests with Obama and, more largely, on Reid. The majority leader outlines the chamber's schedule and can control the bill's consideration relative to other priorities. However, a Democratic aide warned, Republicans have threatened to read all 1,924 pages of the Senate's omnibus-spending bill on the floor in an effort to run out the clock on other legislation. At that point, Reid's best and likeliest recourse would be to keep the Senate in session through the legislature's Christmas vacation.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) told MSNBC Tuesday that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) claimed to have the 60 votes needed for passage. That seems dependent on keeping the Republican swing votes in the fold. And herein rests the President's role, aides and activists said.

If DADT repeal is to pass, Democrats will likely, but not necessarily, need three GOPers to cross party lines. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) appears to be a clear yes, having voted for a defense authorization bill carrying DADT repeal as well as cosponsoring Lieberman's standalone bill. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) are the other obvious targets. Pressure from the White House would go some way toward getting those members' support. But the president's influence may be felt much more directly inside his own party.

Only one Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, cast a vote last week against the defense authorization bill that carried "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal. And while Hill aides are convinced that Manchin won't change his mind with respect to the policy, one Democrat close to the senator said it remains a possibility.

"I think the only one who could make the difference in this is the White House ... this is not a Senate game," the Democrat said. "This is really the dynamics and the strategy coming out of the White House ... and right now they are not out there lobbying this hard."

Elise Foley contributed to this report.