New Leader in Military Policy Battle

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) says she wants to "move forward as quickly as we can" to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.) took the reins of the congressional effort to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy this week, though she was quick to point out that ending the ban on openly gay service members has little chance of passage unless a Democratic president takes office in 2009.

The policy, put in place in 1993 under the Clinton administration, allows gay men and lesbians to join and stay in the military so long as they do not make their sexual orientation known. Activists say the "enforced silence" is both an equality issue and a military readiness problem, preventing skilled volunteers from joining a strained military and pushing as many as two people each day out of the armed services when the country needs them most.

Tauscher and about 125 other House members say that the policy is outdated and that the military and the American people are far ahead of politicians on the issue. She said efforts to roll back the policy languished under a Republican-controlled Congress.

"We have just been in the majority for six months, and I'm hoping we can begin the necessary education process through hearings," Tauscher said in a conference call with reporters this week. "My commitment is to get this 'don't ask, don't tell' policy repealed and move forward as quickly as we can."

Tauscher is taking over sponsorship of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act from Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), who is leaving Congress in July to become chancellor of his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

She said her biggest task is educating people about the policy and its effects, and she has promised hearings in the House Armed Services Committee. But Tauscher warned that there are difficult hurdles ahead. There is no Senate sponsor for the bill, and the narrow Democratic margin in that chamber will make it extremely difficult for such a bill to pass. And President Bush would almost certainly not be eager to sign the legislation.

"To a certain extent, for some people, it does fall across party lines," she said. "There is a sense that very conservative Republicans, including the president, would be hostile toward repealing" the policy.

All of the Republican presidential candidates expressed support for the existing policy at a debate in New Hampshire this month, and leading contenders said it would be distracting to reevaluate it in the middle of a war.

"I think it would be a terrific mistake to even reopen the issue," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said in the June 5 debate. "It is working, my friends. The policy is working."

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney agreed: "This is not the time to put in place a major change, a social experiment, in the middle of a war going on."

Tauscher, however, says it is crucial to repeal the policy now, when the military is stretched thin by lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Along with the change in the makeup of Congress, comments made by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have inflamed the debate about "don't ask, don't tell." He told reporters at the Chicago Tribune in March that he believes homosexuality is immoral. His position drew criticism from several fronts, including Tauscher, who called it "wrongheaded."

Tauscher said Pace later wrote an apologetic letter, but she said she believes that his comments are part of the reason Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is not putting him up for renomination.

Sharra E. Greer, director of law and policy for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and an advocate of repealing "don't ask, don't tell," said that an estimated 65,000 troops serve while hiding their orientation and that more than 11,000 have been dismissed under the policy since it began in 1993. The Government Accountability Office found that 800 of those people were "mission-critical," including hard-to-find language experts.

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