Log Cabin Republicans' leader fights 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 9:29 PM

R. Clarke Cooper is watching the clock on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The leader of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group of about 19,000 members, is pressing the three branches of government to end the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in uniform.

The Army reserves captain, who is suing the federal government, was at a recent meeting with President Obama and other activists to discuss strategy, and this week he is lobbying Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Days before the lame-duck session starts, Cooper is finding himself up against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the war hero and former presidential candidate who once supported repeal but is now trying to strip it from the massive defense authorization bill that sets Pentagon policy. McCain has said he wants it cut to ensure quick passage of the bill, according to his aides.

A Pentagon report on repealing "don't ask, don't tell" is due to Obama on Dec. 1, leaving little time before the holidays for lawmakers to consider the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) supports ending the ban, according to aides, but will not proceed without Republican support.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she will vote for repeal if Reid can ensure a fair debate and will allow Republicans to introduce amendments.

The liberal Center for American Progress said Tuesday that at least 10 senators of both parties are waiting to read the Pentagon report before making their decision. In anticipation, the Human Rights Campaign and other Democratic-leaning gay rights groups are pressuring senators on both sides of the aisle.

In a meeting with gay activists two weeks ago, Obama said he remains committed to ending the military ban this year, and Cooper said he urged the president and his aides to more actively seek out GOP lawmakers willing to vote for repeal.

"If they're serious about repeal, they'll start picking up the phone," Cooper said. "They may be surprised to find how many votes might be out there."

The White House continues to speak with congressional leaders about including a repeal in the defense bill and the administration is opposed to passage of a defense bill that doesn't repeal it, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Cooper isn't naming the senators he's targeting this week for fear of spoiling potential support.

"We're not looking to do political theater, we're looking to get results," he said.

If legislative efforts fail, LCR will turn all of its energies to its federal court case, which challenges the constitutionality of the policy.

Though LCR has tried and failed for years to advance the cause of gay Republicans, Cooper sees glimmers of hope, citing a CNN exit poll that found 31 percent of self-identified gay voters cast ballots for Republicans last week, up slightly from 2008. And where doors were shut for Cooper's predecessors, no congressional office has declined to meet with him during his five months on the job, he said.

"At least they're politically pragmatic enough to know that beating up on gays is not a winning strategy," Cooper said of Republicans. "There's a diminishing political return for it."

The new class of Republican - tea party-backed lawmakers - doesn't bother him, either, because most candidates avoided discussing social issues while on the campaign trail.

"It's not that they're champions for equality measures, but they're certainly not roadblocking or opposing them," Cooper said.

Still, "it'd be nice to expand the universe of Republicans who do respect and advocate individual liberty," he said.

Cooper, 39, is gay and worked for then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) before joining George W. Bush's administration. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 and later worked for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

Colleagues are aware of his sexuality, Cooper said, and he's never faced negative repercussions.

"There may be some people that I serve with who aren't thrilled with what I do, but nobody has had the temerity to say it to my face," Cooper said.

Before traveling to Fort Meade last Friday for his monthly service obligations, Cooper appealed LCR's case to the Supreme Court, asking it to immediately stop enforcement of "don't ask, don't tell." Hours later, colleagues on base congratulated him on the effort, Cooper said.

A decision in the case could come as early as next week.

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