By William Fisher
It was a bittersweet day in the US Senate Saturday.
For some, it was a day of joy and high-fives. For others, it was a day of anger, frustration and disbelief.
The anger and frustration came first, when the Senators deep-sixed a bill that would've provided a conditional path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
Senate Democrats failed to gather the 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster on the seemingly benign DREAM Act. DREAM stands for “Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act.” The House of Representatives passed this bill earlier this month.
The final vote to end debate and put the measure to a floor vote was 55-41, Three Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana — voted with the Democrats. But five Democratic senators — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana — moved to the Republican side of the aisle. Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, who had announced his opposition to the bill, was not present for the vote.
If Majority Leader Harry Reid had been able to hold his caucus together, these six Democrats would have made the difference between debate and silence.
Bottom line is that, net, the defections from the GOP were not enough to put together the 60 votes needed to break the Republican filibuster.
The DREAM Act has been rattling around Congress since 2001. It was re-introduced in a rare show of bipartisanship by Senators Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and then-Senator Chuck Hegel of Nebraska and Richard Lugar of Indiana, both Republicans.
The bill would have provided certain illegal and deportable alien students a long and windy path toward US citizenship. Eligible would have been those who graduates from US high schools, were of good moral character, arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors, and had been in the country continuously and illegally for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment.
These achievements would have then given these young people the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency if they completed two years in the military or two years at a four- year institution of higher learning.
The students would obtain temporary residency for a six year period.
President Barack Obama, who promised in the 2008 presidential campaign to revamp U.S. immigration laws, called Saturday's vote "incredibly disappointing."
And looking at the faces of the young people – they called themselves the DREAMers –who had been sitting in the Senate gallery, and earlier had been for weeks aggressively lobbying Congress persons, staging marches in the nation’s Capitol and throughout the country – looking at the faces of these youngsters, one could read expressions of disbelief, anger, frustration, bewilderment.
They seemed to be asking, “Why would they do this to us? After all, we’re not terrorists. We’re Americans. For most of us, America is the only country we have ever known. Where are we supposed to go now?”
Virtually all human and civil rights groups and immigration and education experts were outspokenly supportive of the DREAM Act.
Its defeat is a major blow to President Obama and an ominous harbinger of the chances that Congress will be able to pass anything that looks remotely like comprehensive immigration reform when Republican assume control of the House of Representatives in January.
The second major vote during Saturday’s rare Senate session was on repeal of the discriminatory and controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Principal spokesman for opponents of the measure was Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a much-decorated former military officer and presidential candidate in 2008. McCain said he was deeply concerned about “troop morale and unit cohesion” if gay men and lesbians were allowed to serve openly.
He cited testimony from the various service chiefs, who said in a Congressional hearing last week that they were opposed to the repeal but would follow orders from the Commander-in-Chief and implement the policy of that was the will of the civilian leadership. Repeal has been endorsed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Today is a sad day," McCain said.
Before recommending repeal, the Defense Department carried out an extensive survey of how service members currently in uniform would feel about having openly gay or lesbian colleagues. A high proportion said it would have little or no effect on their performance. The figure was even higher among troops currently serving in units known to have gay or lesbian members.
In a historic vote, the Senate voted 56-43 to enact legislation that would repeal DADT, sending the historic bill to the president’s desk for signature. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal Act of 2010 (H.R. 2965) was passed in the House of Representatives last Wednesday.
“Don't Ask, Don't Tell” was passed into law under President Bill Clinton in 1993 and, since 1994, more than 14,000 qualified and committed service members, both men and women, have been discharged under the policy simply on the basis of their sexual orientation. Gay members of the armed forces could continue to serve only if they kept their sexual orientation a secret.
The momentum to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been building for nearly a year with President Obama calling for its repeal in his State of the Union address and some of the highest-ranking members of the military calling for the policy to end.
Laura W. Murphy, Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a statement, “For nearly two decades, gay and lesbian service members have been forced to hide who they are in order to serve their country. That will soon end. The significance of this vote should not be underestimated and should serve as confirmation that we should not and cannot codify discrimination into our laws.”
She added, “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ had no place in a country where we value the equal treatment of all our citizens. We urge President Obama to swiftly sign this bill and ensure that our gay and lesbian service members can serve their country with honesty and dignity.”
Virtually all civil liberties advocates campaigned for repeal.
Their efforts – and those of a much larger and well-organized campaign favoring repeal, paid off on Saturday, when, by a vote of 63 to 33, supporters of repeal mustered the 60 votes needed to “invoke cloture” – Congress-speak for cutting off debate.
Those numbers made virtually certain that there was enough support in the Senate to bring the measure to a final vote.
In the ensuing debate, the remarks of Senators on both sides of the aisle provide some insight into the flavor of the dialogue.
“I don’t care who you love,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the debate opened. “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”
“This isn’t broke,” Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said of about the policy. “It is working very well.”
“In the middle of a military conflict, is not the time to do it,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia.
Speaking of the 14,000 members of the armed forces who had been forced to leave the ranks under the policy, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut and a staunch supporter of repeal, commented, “What a waste.”
"As Barry Goldwater said, 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight,' " said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada, referring to the late GOP senator from Arizona.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona.), a leading opponent of the measure, said liberals with no military experience were pushing a social agenda on troops during wartime despite reservations among the fighting forces.
And Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, “I’m not here for partisan reasons. I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.”
The Senate will now send the bill to President Obama for his signature. Repeal would not take effect immediately. Some 60 days are being allowed for other procedural steps.
More importantly, the bill requires repeal to become effective only after the defense secretary determines that policies are in place to carry out the repeal “consistent with military standards for readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.”
Repeal of DADT represents a major win for the White House. The New York Times reported that activists were saying it represented an emotional moment for members of the gay community nationwide.
Votes for repeal were far more bipartisan than is customary in Washington these days. The bill's co-sponsor is Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Six other Republicans joined the Democrats to vote for repeal -- George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Mark Steven Kirk, newly elected from Illinois, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, John Ensign of Nevada, and – in a surprise move -- Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Only a week ago, the effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seemed to be dead and in danger of fading for at least two years with Republicans about to take control of the House. The provision eliminating the ban was initially included in a broader Pentagon policy bill, and Republican backers of repeal had refused to join in cutting off a filibuster against the underlying bill because of objections over the ability to debate the measure.
Remarks from two Senators probably best sum up the feelings on both sides of the debate:
Republican John McCain said, “There will be high fives all over the liberal bastions of America, and we’ll see the talk shows tomorrow, a bunch of people talking about how great it is. Most of them have never served in the military or maybe not even known someone in the military.”
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California, referring to individuals and organizations who had fought for repeal for many years, said, “We have come a long way because people put their fear aside and they came forward and they told their stories. They took the light and they focused it on the truth. We've come a long way because of their families who loved them and have spoken out," Boxer said. "This is America at its best, when we open our arms to equality, freedom and justice."
I suppose one would have to be a true down-in-the-weeds Congress-watcher to understand what happened in the Senate on Saturday. Here we have a seemingly benign, relatively simple, compassionate, common-sense, low-cost piece of legislation going down in flames. And crashing and burning with tens of thousands of kids who were looking to DREAM to help them chart their future. And doing so just before Christmas.
And in DADT, we have an incredibly complex piece of legislation that will doubtless present both civilian and military leadership, as well as the President, with a host of challenges. Change within the Armed Services is never easy to achieve. This particular change pits the status quo against shifting social values and standards.
As Harry Truman’s integration of the military was much harder than its supporters expected, and took far longer than its supporters expected, it finally happened. So now we all have to hope that the leaders of our military – and all of its members – will be blessed with the wisdom to manage this transition wisely.
Because it’s time to do the right thing.