Unfinished business in Congress

Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:21 PM

THE SENATE'S relatively speedy, unusually bipartisan handling of a giant tax bill has left time in this lame-duck session for some unfinished business. On three remaining issues, Congress has more than amply laid the groundwork for action. Hearings have been held, debates staged; the Senate has no excuse not to to vote.

Denying gay men and lesbians the ability to openly serve their country dishonors the uniform and is a disservice to the nation. Repealing the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy would be a civil rights advance - and a victory for good governance. With federal judges ruling against the constitutionality of the law, congressional failure to act would put the military at the mercy of the courts. Repeal would give Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the discretion they have asked for to institute an orderly transition from the discriminatory policy.

The DREAM Act also would help the military, though that's not the principal argument in its favor. The Senate has been unable to find bipartisan common ground on immigration. But you'd think that there would be room for compromise on at least this one piece of the debate. The legislation would open a path to citizenship for young people who were brought to the country illegally by their parents - and who have been here for at least five years, have broken no laws and have served in the military or attended college. We're talking about a tiny fraction of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants - maybe 65,000 annually - many of whom have lived here since they were small children, lack legal documents through no fault of their own, and have known no other country and want to serve this one.

Opponents have had to resort to distortions - for example, saying that the bill would open a door to legalizing entire families - because the bill in truth would be a win for the country as well as a humanitarian blessing.

Finally, the New START treaty, while no breakthrough in nuclear arms control, is a modest step forward. It would decrease deployed strategic warheads of the United States and Russia to 1,550 on each side, a reduction of almost 30 percent from current limits, and it would renew inspection and verification procedures that lapsed when a previous treaty expired a year ago.

Republican objections, never substantial, have been more than answered. Among other things, the administration has committed $85 billion to modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next decade in an attempt to satisfy Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz); it has also won NATO's support for deploying a missile defense system in Europe despite nonbinding language in the treaty preamble that some GOP senators say could constrain such projects. Republican attempts to amend the treaty so as to force the reopening of negotiations with Russia should be rebuffed; the price would likely be a lessening of Russian cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

On all three of these, all that's wanting is Senate action. There's ample time before Christmas.

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