The DADT Repeal Repertory Theater
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.
September 21st, 2010
It’s official. The start of the process of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been put on hold. Both Arkansas Democrats, Blanche L. Lincoln and Mark Pryor, joined all 40 Republicans to sustain the filibuster against the National Defense Appropriations Act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) switched his vote at the last minute in a procedural maneuver that will allow him to bring the bill back to the Senate floor for a later revote. At this time, that vote will almost certainly not take place until after the November elections during a lame-duck session.
In the days leading up to today’s vote, Reid announced that he would allow a vote on only three amendments to the appropriations bill. One proposed amendment, which would have removed the DADT repeal language from the bill, would almost certainly not have garnered the sixty votes needed pass muster. A second proposed amendment, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who served in the U.S. military or who graduate from college, also likely would have failed due to Republican opposition and discomfort among some Democrats. A third proposed amendment would have placed limits on Senators being able to place holds on nominations.
Those were the only amendments that Reid would allow to come up for a vote, all of which were chosen by Reid for the political advantage they would give the Democrats in tough mid-term election campaigns. His gamble wasn’t really a gamble at all. In fact, his gambit was a win-win for Democrats, at least in how they see their strategy unfolding. If Republicans upheld the filibuster, then Reid could go home and say that it was the Republicans who blocked DADT’s repeal and immigration reform. If the Dems had prevailed on the filibuster, then Reid would have been able to get the Republican caucus on record on these two issues ahead of the November elections. Either way, what Reid actually sought to accomplish was political gamesmanship, not Senatorial statesmanship.
The Republican caucus insisted that they be allowed to bring proposed amendments up for a vote as well, a reasonable demand that in ordinary times would not have raised an eyebrow. But these are not ordinary times. Votes in the Senate aren’t about actually doing anything but positioning for the elections. I don’t know what amendments Republicans wanted votes on, but they were undoubtedly just as politically divisive as Reid’s chosen amendments. But by not even allowing debate on a very limited number of those other amendments, Reid doomed DADT’s repeal until after the election.
The sixty votes needed to break the filibuster had already been lined up, but that was before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to limit debates and votes on amendments. That led to a collapse in support in ending the filibuster. Servicemembers United, which has been campaigning for DADT’s repeal, saw through Reid’s political posturing. SU’s Executive Director Alexander Nicholson criticized Reid’s position yesterday on MSNBC:
“If Senator Reid would just budge a little bit and come to an agreement on a reasonable way to proceed, we could potentially get the votes. But so far, he’s not been willing to do that, unfortunately.”
Following today’s vote, Nicholson said called it “a failure of leadership.” Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis was more circumspect, saying:
Today’s Senate vote was a frustrating blow to repeal this horrible law. We lost because of the political maneuvering dictated by the mid-term elections.
So if Reid had the votes to break the filibuster but squandered them in this procedural maneuver, why did he do this? The answer is simple. This was never a serious attempt to pass legislation in the best interests of the American people. It was nothing but political theater, and everyone on both sides were eager actors in the drama. All the Senators had a role to play, and everyone played to the audience. Even the White House was given a bit part. They issued a statement calling for an end to the filibuster, but according to SLDN’s Trevor Thomas, there was no lobbying behind the scenes.
And now that the vote has been taken, the play moves on to its second act: everyone now gets to go home and use it on the campaign trail. Republicans, even those who support DADT’s repeal, will be able to brag that they stood up to the evil Democratic machine. Democrats will be able to blame the evil Republican machine for blocking legislation that three-fourths of the American population agree on.
What happens in the third act — when the legislation re-appears in a lame-duck session after the elections — is anybody’s guess right now. It’s shaping up to be quite a cliff-hanger, so don’t touch that dial!
And what role do we in the gay community play? It’s the same role we always play. We’re the interesting and colorful plotline. It’s not much of a speaking part, but the dance moves are fabulous. And why should it be otherwise? It’s a role we’ve played so well over the years that it’s just expected of us. And we are happy to oblige. This time, we even have Lady Gaga making a guest appearance.
Which makes all of this really funny when you think about it. For all the talk of unbridgeable differences in today’s political landscape, Reid’s maneuver was a gift to all one hundred Senators of something every one of them wanted: a campaign issue. With today’s drama, everyone wins — Hooray for Reid! — everyone, that is, with the exception of the American people.