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Brown says no to repeal of ‘don’t ask’

Keeping ‘open mind’; urges vote be put off

By Bryan Bender and Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 26, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Republican Senator Scott Brown said yesterday that he will vote against repealing the law that bars gays from serving openly in the military, dealing a setback to efforts by gay rights advocates and Democrats to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ law this year.

Brown’s highly anticipated decision — following meetings in recent days with gay rights groups and military leaders and service members — came after President Obama and Democratic leaders agreed Monday night that repeal of the law, if passed, would not go into effect until the Pentagon completes a review Dec. 1. That agreement was made to help assuage concerns of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates over the timing of repeal.

But Brown said that he believes a vote on repeal should be put off longer — until the Pentagon formulates a plan for implementing openly gay service.

A key vote on repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ law is expected tomorrow in the influential Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Brown is a member. Even as he announced that he would cast his committee vote against repeal, Brown left open the possibility that, at a later date, he might support it.

“I am keeping an open mind, but I do not support moving ahead until I am able to finish my review, the Pentagon completes its study, and we can be assured that a new policy can be implemented without jeopardizing the mission of our military,’’ the Massachusetts senator said.

The 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ statute permits gays to serve only if they keep their sexual orientation secret.

Brown’s decision comes as he works to establish his stance on several major issues — and as senators and even some of his supporters try to determine what kind of Republican he will be. Brown last week was criticized by former supporters who were dismayed he joined Democrats to advance President Obama’s plan to overhaul the financial system.

The Obama administration and leading Democrats were cautiously optimistic yesterday they have enough votes for passage of the repeal without Brown’s vote, even if all Democrats on the committee do not support it. Senator Susan Collins, a Republican of Maine, has said she will support the repeal in committee.

The repeal is scheduled to be added to the pending defense spending bill in the Senate; another amendment is expected to be brought for a full vote in the House tomorrow.

House leaders say they have enough support for passage in their chamber, but the repeal’s fate is uncertain in the full Senate, where Brown’s stance against it could prove pivotal. Still, since the amendment is part of the defense bill, it could be politically risky for Republicans to block it through a filibuster.

Brown’s stance prompted pointed criticism from gay rights groups.

“We’re outraged,’’ said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, which had encouraged its members yesterday to call Brown’s office. “I can’t believe that in 2010 a senator from Massachusetts would not support repealing this discriminatory law that keeps gay citizens from serving their country. It’s amazing.’’

Isaacson said Brown’s call for more review sounded “specious, at best,’’ saying his opposition “smells like it’s based on good old-fashioned prejudice, not a lack of studies’’ — especially since repeal would not be implemented until after the Pentagon assessment.

Most Massachusetts voters back ending “don’t ask,’’ according to a survey released yesterday. The poll of 500 registered voters, conducted by Brown’s pollster, Neil Newhouse, for the Human Rights Campaign, found that 77 percent of Bay State voters support repeal.

Brown’s counterpart in the Senate, Democrat John F. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, supports repeal. “It’s past time that we should allow gays and lesbians to take their rightful place on our lines, on our ships, and in our aircraft,’’ he said in a statement. “It will make us a more just and fair society, and a safer and stronger one.’’

Brown has frequently drawn the ire of gay rights advocates. In 2001, he said it was “not normal’’ for then-state senator Cheryl Jacques and her partner to have children. He also referred to her “alleged family responsibilities,’’ comments for which he apologized. While he supports civil unions, he helped attempts by former governor Mitt Romney to place a ban on gay marriage on the state ballot.

Brown, also a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts National Guard, said his decision came after speaking with those who would be most affected by any change.

“For some time now, I have been seeking the opinions and recommendations of service chiefs, commanders in the field, and, most importantly, our junior soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines,’’ he said in the statement. “I believe we have a responsibility to the men and women of our armed forces to be thorough in our consideration of this issue and take their opinions seriously.’’

An influential Democratic representative, Ike Skelton of Missouri, also said yesterday he opposed the repeal. “I hope my colleagues will avoid jumping the gun and wait for [the Pentagon] to complete its work,’’ Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

The Pentagon review, established by Gates in March, is designed to determine any changes in recruiting, spousal benefits, and the military justice system that might be needed to ensure openly gay service does not disrupt military operations and gay troops don’t face discrimination.

Gates has insisted the study is designed to determine how best to implement a new law, not to gauge whether the troops support overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell.’’

A report released yesterday by the Family Research Council, a conservative group, accused the Obama administration of “drafting the military into the culture war.’’ Tony Perkins, a former Marine who is the group’s president, called the rush to repeal “a move to use the military to advance a radical agenda.’’ The Democrats, he said, “are afraid they won’t have the majority in November,’’ after congressional elections.

Brown, for his part, is likely to be getting an earful in the coming days from activists such as DeeDee Edmondson, political director of MassEquality, the largest gay rights group in the state. “Senator Brown is out of step with the people who elected him,’’ she said.

Others held out hope the freshman senator would eventually change his mind, and support the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ repeal. Among them was Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network, which has represented some of the more than 13,000 troops who have been discharged under the policy since 1994.

“It is very hard for me to see a senator from the Bay State voting against repeal,’’ he said.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.