WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats attempting to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy were dealt a significant setback today, with Republicans, including Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, blocking action on the issue.
Democrats fell four votes shy of the 60 they needed, making the chances for eventual passage of the repeal far more uncertain, with Republicans poised to gain strength in the midterm elections. Senate Democrats are planning to bring the issue up again during a lame duck session, likely in November or December, but the politics in Washington could be complicated after the election.
"It's a bad day for the country when you don't debate the things that are important issues before the country," Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, told reporters as he went in to cast his vote.
Before the vote, Brown strongly criticized the Democrats' plan to move forward on the repeal as part of a defense bill, saying it was an attempt to score political points.
"Unfortunately what has traditionally been a very open and bipartisan process has in fact evolved into a dynamic display of political grandstanding. My question is, 'What happened?'" Brown said in a speech on the Senate floor. "The majority party, I feel, is using our men and women in uniform as a tactic to pass politically expedient legislation entirely unrelated to the defense authorization. It is in my view not appropriate."
The repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is included in a much bill that authorizes $726 billion in military spending next year. The bill is normally not contentious, with both parties eager to support the military. It has been passed for 48 consecutive years. But this year, with the bill being introduced in a paralyzing atmosphere ahead of the midterm elections, both parties were attempting to use the bill to motivate their bases.
The House earlier this year approved a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." The Senate's committee report also included the ban, so Republicans would need to pass an amendment to remove it. By using the filibuster, Republicans prevented Democrats from voting on the bill.
In addition, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has called for repeal of the policy, has called for a Pentagon review on how such a repeal could be implemented. That review is due on Dec. 1. Several senators, including Brown, have said they want to wait until that review is completed before voting on the repeal.
Brown, who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted against the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," when the issue was before the committee in May, saying he wanted to wait until a Pentagon review was completed. Even with the repeal included, however, he supported the larger defense authorization bill when the committee voted on it and vowed not to join a filibuster to block it.
"No, no, no," he said when asked whether he would attempt to stop the measure from coming to a vote. "Filibusters never - it's not my style. I want to make sure that we have a full and fair debate on it."
Following the vote today, Brown said he was not joining the filibuster because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, insisting it was because Reid was not planning to allow enough amendments.
"It wasn't really a concern," Brown said of the repeal on the military's ban on openly gay service members. "The bigger concern was the process. They were putting things into the bill that have nothing to do with our troops"
The issue failed by a 56-to-43 vote. All Republicans voted against the measure, and were joined by two Democratic senators from Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor. Reid also voted against the measure as a procedural tactic that will allow him to bring the issue up again.
"Obviously, we are disappointed. Senator Reid failed to reach a compromise with Republicans and our military service-members will need to wait until the November elections are over for the US Senate to vote on a repeal." said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. "This partisan arrogance is an example of why voters will be turning away from Democrats on November 2nd."
Democrats today were also hoping to pass an amendment to the bill that would provide illegal immigrants with a quicker pathway to citizenship through college or military service.
The so-called Dream Act would create a path to legal residency for youths who arrived before they turned 16; have lived in the United States for five consecutive years; and have no criminal record. In order to become citizens, they would have to graduate from high school or obtain a GED, complete two years in college or the military, and be under 35 years old.
Critics say that it would reward immigrant families who came to the country illegally, and say it lacks the comprehensive provisions to crack down on illegal immigration.
A group of somber-faced students demonstrating outside of Brown's office in Boston vowed to keep pushing for the Dream Act today.
"It is a disappointment, but it's not the end," said Deivid Ribeiro, spokesman for the Student Immigrant Movement, a group advocating for undocumented immigrant children. "It's tough to see the heartbreak on students' faces right now. We still have hope, because regardless of what happens with the bills, dreams are stronger than bills."
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.