Why Sen. Susan Collins is blocking vote on 'don't ask, don't tell'

Sen. Susan Collins, the moderate Maine Republican who opposes 'don't ask, don't tell,' says the way Democrats are trying to repeal it is 'unfair.'

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine talks about the military 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday.
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Despite a last-minute appeal from pop icon Lady Gaga, two moderate Republican senators said Tuesday morning that they will not break with their party on a key vote that would set the stage for a repeal the Pentagon's "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.

The Senate was scheduled to vote Tuesday on the $725.7 billion defense authorization bill, which sets annual spending levels for the Pentagon – a process that is particularly crucial in time of war. But the controversy over the current bill is fixed on a bid – tied to the bill's passage – to repeal the President Clinton-era policy that bans openly gay servicemen and women from serving in the military.

Democrats are at least one vote short of the 60 needed to block a GOP filibuster. Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine – the lone Republican to vote to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell in the Senate Armed Services Committee – appeared to be their best prospect.

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“It’s the right thing to do. I think it’s only fair" to repeal don't ask, don't tell, said Senator Collins in a floor speech Tuesday. “But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that’s going to shut down the debate and preclude Republican amendments. That, too, is not fair.

Just 42 days before midterm elections that could swing both the House and the Senate, the standoff over a typically must-pass defense authorization bill plays into electoral strategies for both parties.

“The stakes are high and people are acting accordingly,” says Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution specializing in defense policy. “They’re firing up their base and thinking how they can caricature the other side.”

“Some people on the Democratic side are in a hurry to get this done and dare the Republicans to vote against it,” he adds. For Republicans, “it creates the impression that all Washington is concerned about in this crucial moment of war and attempted economic recovery is gays in the military."

[Editor's note: In the original version, this quote was incorrectly attributed to Sen. George Voinovich.]

Maine senators hold firm

That has been evident in the national debate, with pop star Lady Gaga holding a rally in Portland, Maine, Monday calling for the the repeal of don't ask, don't tell.

Despite the rally, however, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine announced in Monday that she, too, will be voting with Republicans to oppose today’s procedural vote, which would bring the defense bill to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, who gave Democrats the GOP vote they needed on last week’s small-business bill, said that he will not be with Democrats on Tuesday’s vote, until there is an agreement with Republican leader Mitch McConnell over amendments.

“I’m disappointed that Majority Leader Reid and Senate Democrats have chosen to turn the Defense authorization bill – crucial legislation for our troops in a time of war – into a messaging bill,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.

“If the Democrats are serious about passing this bill in a timely fashion, they wouldn’t be attaching amendments that are not relevant to the common defense, in addition to making it impossible for Republicans to offer their own amendments to address concerns they have with the bill as voted out of the Armed Services Committee,” he added.

In past years, debate over the defense authorization bill has included dozens of amendments and gone on for weeks. Republicans say that Senator Reid is severely limiting debate to issues expected to help Democratic prospects in November midterm elections.

Immigration reform makes a reappearance

In addition to don’t ask, don’t tell, Reid said that he will also allow a vote on an amendment called the DREAM Act, which would open a path to citizenship to children of illegal immigrants born in the United States who receive a college degree or serve in the US military. The move was welcomed by immigrant-rights groups, but reopens immigration reform, one of the most controversial issues not yet faced by the 110th Congress.

As the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is leading a filibuster on the bill because the Pentagon has not yet completed a survey of the views of servicemen and women on repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.

“The Senate should not be forced to make this decision now before we hear from our troops,” he said in a floor speech on Tuesday. Moreover, inclusion of the DREAM Act in a Defense authorization bill just reinforces the view that “ this is all about elections,” he added.

In response, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the panel, said that the ban will not take place until the president, the secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff consider the results of the review and certify that readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruitment and retention will not be adversely affected.

“We should not deny the Senate the opportunity to take up a bill essential to men and women in the military just because we disagree with some provisions in the bill,” he said.

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