"Don't ask, don't tell" repeal dies: Who's to blame?

In a dramatic move, Harry Reid forces the issue in the Senate -- and falls three votes short

Published December 9, 2010 10:03PM (EST)

  (© Jim Young / Reuters)
(© Jim Young / Reuters)

[Updated] It looks like 2010 will end with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy still on the books. On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called for a cloture vote on the defense authorization bill, which includes a provision that would repeal DADT. Reid needed 60 votes to break the Republican-led filibuster, but when the roll was called, he was only able to come up with 57 takers.

If you're part of the overwhelming majority of Americans who want DADT ended, you might consider blaming some or all of the following people for today's development:

  • Scott Brown and Lisa Murkowski: Both Republican senators made news in the last week by announcing their support for repeal. Their backing came with a catch: Republican senators, as a group, had already pledged to take no action on anything until all of the Bush tax cuts were extended. That condition was seemingly met on Tuesday, when Barack Obama cut his tax deal with GOP leaders, and yet both Brown and Murkowski joined the GOP's DADT filibuster on Thursday. They haven't explained themselves yet, but presumably they will use one of two excuses: 1) The deal on the Bush tax cuts hasn't yet cleared Congress, so it was still too soon to do anything else; or 2) Our fellow Republican, Susan Collins, made some not-unreasonable demands about the terms of any Senate debate on DADT, and yet Reid ignored her; while we're for repealing DADT, this just isn't the way to do it.
  • Susan Collins: As noted above, Maine's junior Republican senator, who reaffirmed her support for ending the policy last week, wanted Reid to make guarantees about the length of any floor debate (four days, she said) and the number of amendments that would be allowed for consideration. Reid, apparently believing that Collins was trying to run out the clock (the Senate is scheduled to adjourn for the year next week), went ahead with the vote without reaching an agreement. Collins decried his action -- but then voted for cloture. So what were all her objections about? If she could live with repeal without a protracted debate, why did she spend the last week helping to hold up the process? Maybe she really was trying to help her fellow Republicans (like, say, her good friend/ardent DADT repeal foe John McCain) run out the clock -- so that, once it was clear Reid didn't have 60 votes, she cast a symbolic vote for cloture (which probably won't look bad back home).
  • Harry Reid: It's tough to tell how much, if any, blame the majority leader deserves. The answer depends on the motives of Collins, Brown and Murkowski. If there really was a scenario under which they'd all vote for cloture, and potentially bring a wavering Democrat (like West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who joined the filibuster on Thursday) along with them, then Reid dropped the ball by rushing to call a vote. If Collins was sincere in wanting four days of debate (and if that would have brought several other senators on board for repeal), Reid could have accommodated her by extending the Senate session past next week. But if he was right that they were looking for excuses to stick with the filibuster, then there was no reason not to force the issue now.
  • Barack Obama: One of the reasons why I wrote that the tax deal reached earlier this week wasn't that bad was that it potentially created an opening to repeal DADT this month. But in the wake of the tax compromise, the White House didn't seem particularly interested in engaging in this battle.

It's still possible that there will be another DADT vote before the new Congress convenes in January -- there's even some chatter that Democrats will bring the issue back on its own, and not as part of the overall defense bill. But if and when this happens, there'll be even less time left in the session -- and it will be only easier for Collins, Brown, et al. to make excuses for joining McCain's filibuster. And once the clock runs out and the new Republican Congress is sworn in, you can pretty much forget about repeal working its way to the president's desk in 2011 and 2012 -- and maybe well beyond that.

Update: Per Andrew Sullivan, who is monitoring Joe Lieberman's Twitter feed, Collins and Lieberman plan to introduce repeal as a standalone repeal legislation. At least theoretically, this keeps the possibility of repeal alive. If there really are 60 (or 61 0r 62, as Collins claims) senators who want to end DADT, this might make it easier for them to stand as a bloc to prevent time-killing/poison pill amendments from being introduced. We'll see.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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