Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
Senate Republicans blocked the Defense Department bill Tuesday, objecting to gay rights and immigration language in the annual legislation that sets policies and spending levels for the Pentagon. Majority Democrats, needing 60 votes to break a filibuster and begin consideration of the bill, fell short 43 to 56. Arkansas Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor joined all 40 Republicans in voting no.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted against the bill, but for procedural reasons. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) missed the roll call.
GOP senators said two controversial additions -- language to begin the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military and a last-minute amendment based on the DREAM Act to give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they complete two years of college or serve that long in the military -- made the bill impossible to support.
"In Senator Reid and the Democrats' zeal to get re-elected, they've used a cynical political ploy to try to galvanize and energize their base," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) the top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "In the case of the DREAM Act, it's the Hispanic vote...The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell is an appeal to the gay and lesbian base. I've been around here a long time and I have never seen such a cynical use of the needs of our men and women in the military."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it is the Republicans playing politics with a bill that is designed to provide benefits for members of the military and their families, to build weapons systems, and to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They should fight against it if they don't like it," Levin said of the Republicans who stopped the legislation. "It would be unthinkable if we didn't have a Defense Authorization bill. It's never happened."
In May, the panel approved a "don't ask, don't tell" repeal provision, to begin the process of ending the policy that bans openly gay individuals from military service. (The language stipulates that the ban will be lifted after the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff complete a review of armed forces personnel and certify that repeal won't hurt military readiness.) The House has already passed a bill with identical language to roll back a policy enacted under President Clinton that requires gay men and lesbians in the armed forces to keep their sexual orientation private.
But last week, Senate Majority Leader Reid announced he would also offer a hot-button amendment based on the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a rider that would give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they have been in the United States for longer than five years. To qualify, they also must have come to the country before the age of 16 and have completed at least two years of college or two years in the military.
With time ticking toward a Tuesday afternoon vote, Democrats and liberal activists -- including pop singer Lady Gaga
-- hoped that Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Armed Services Committee, and Maine's other Republican senator, Olympia Snowe,
would announce their support for the Defense bill. But both Snowe and Collins joined with all of their fellow Republicans to block it by refusing to cut off debate.
"I don't support amnesty and I don't support repealing don't ask Don't Tell," Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, told Politics Daily before voting no. "They're playing politics with the bill."
Levin said that failure to get 60 votes for the legislation this week would be "a real setback." He admitted he did not know if he could pass the bill during the lame duck session of Congress now scheduled after the election. With the fate of several Democratic Senate seats in doubt in special elections, Democrats could bring fewer than their current 59 votes back to the Senate for the post-election session.
"Anyone who tries to predict what will happen in lame duck has got a lot more courage than I do," Levin said.