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July 17, 2009

 

Hate crime, ‘don’t ask’ riders may go on defense bill

Washington, D.C.--A group of senators are looking at strategies to do what President Obama is not willing to do: put an immediate halt to gay discharges from the armed services.

The idea, floated this week by first-term New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, is an amendment to a Defense Dept. reauthorization bill that would put an 18-month moratorium on the discharges.

The amendment would join another one proposed for the same Pentagon funding bill, to add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing federal hate crime laws.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” moratorium would force Congress and the administration to focus on the repeal of the 16-year-old law that bans openly gay and lesbian servicemembers.

Most LGBT advocates have been pushing President Barack Obama to do this by executive order, a move the president has rejected.

Even if the amendment is made part of the “must pass” funding bill, it would merely direct the Secretary of Defense to stop investigating and discharging gay servicemembers. Repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” would need to be done in a separate piece of legislation.

A bill to repeal the gay ban has been introduced in the House, but has not moved despite polls showing an overwhelming majority, up to 76 percent, of Americans want the ban to be scrapped.

Though he ran on repealing the ban, Obama has angered LGBT advocates with his inaction.

So far, there is no Senate bill, and no lobbying effort by the president to push one.

Until those two things happen, the House bill will probably languish. Meanwhile, an average of two gay servicemembers are discharged every day. Arab Linguist Army Lt. Dan Choi, who was discharged last week, was the 266th gay discharge since Obama was sworn in.

Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill the seat formerly held by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would face a difficult challenge getting an amendment to pass before the senate goes on summer recess the end of July.

However, Majority Leader Harry Reid said July 14 that he would support Gillibrand’s effort and take it one step further.

“I want to make it permanent,” Reid told the Advocate’s Washington correspondent Kerry Eleveld.

Reid has not made the repeal a priority to this point, either, and it is not clear whether or not his support for Gillibrand’s proposed amendment is an attempt to  stop the discharges without actually repealing the law that requires them, or whether he sees a permanent suspension of discharges as part of a repeal strategy.

The hate crime bill is further along. Known as the Matthew Shepard Act or the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, it passed the House in April.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is adding it to the defense funding bill.

The tactic of attaching this bill to a must-pass spending measure is a familiar one.

Leahy and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts tried the same thing in 2007. The bill, which adds federal penalties for bias crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, survived a filibuster attempt with 60 votes that year.

Then-President George W. Bush threatened to veto the war funding bill if the hate crime measure was kept in.

Congress backed down and removed it in a House-Senate conference committee.

Obama has issued no similar threat.

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