The Republican Party, which once tried to compete with Democrats for the votes of gays and lesbians, on Tuesday used the filibuster to assure that discrimination against homosexuals in the military would continue.
Senate Democrats needed 60 votes to take the legislative steps necessary to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that has led to the forced discharge of more than 14,000 loyal Americans from the military. The votes were required to open debate on a version of the 2011 defense authorization bill that would have allowed the Obama administration to end formal discrimination as outlined in the failed compromises of the 1990s between the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans on the question of how to respect gays and lesbians who serve in the military.
When Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, moved to proceed on the defense measure Tuesday, however, he mustered only 56 votes.
That's a majority for fairness.
But, with Republicans in full "party of no" frenzy, majorities don't count.
Fifty-six members of the Senate Democratic Caucus (54 Democrats, Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders and Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman) voted to open the debate.
All 40 Senate Republicans voted "no," as did Arkansas Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, also voted "no," in order to maintain the procedural flexibility needed to raise the issue again.
Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated in her state's Republican primary and is mounting a write-in run for reelection, did not vote.
The failure to open debate on the defense bill also blocked action on the DREAM Act, a measure designed to create clearer paths to citizenship for children of immigrants. In so doing, they effectively stalled immigration reform efforts until after the election—and perhaps much longer.
“Once again, politicians are playing politics with people's lives. Filibustering the defense authorization bill to block action on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal and the DREAM Act—two measures that do justice to the fundamental principle of fairness—is a disappointment and disservice to our country," declared Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Seventy-eight percent of Americans support ending 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and countless others believe that young people should be provided a path to citizenship in the country they love and have always called home. Today's Senate vote mocks those ideals. The senators who led and supported the filibuster effort should be ashamed."
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center that has campaigned for the DREAM Act as a mild reform that would provide legal status to young people who graduate from high school and pursue college or military service, complained that: "The political gridlock that has immobilized the Senate has resulted once again in a lost opportunity for the American people. By refusing to allow the Defense Authorization Act to proceed, America will not see, at this time, an up or down vote on the DREAM Act, which would have been a first legislative step in resolving our immigration crisis. The Senators who voted "no" today are ignoring unequivocal evidence that the DREAM Act is good for military readiness, the American workforce and the US economy."
Among the notable "no" votes Tuesday were those of Republicans who represent states with substantial and active gay and lesbian communities, such as supposed Maine moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Arizona Senator John McCain, once a thoughtful supporter of immigration reform and a relative moderate on issues of concern to the LGBT community, completed his hard shift to the right by leading the filibuster fight.
McCain accused the Obama administration and Senate Democrats of "pandering" to the gay and lesbian community with their effort to end discrimination, telling the Senate that: "November second is only a few days away. And the president of the United States made a commitment to the gay and lesbian community that he would make the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' one of his priorities."
The senator appears to have missed the irony of his own pandering to extremists in the Republican Party who had pressured him with a primary challenge this year. In the face of that challenge, McCain abandoned many long-held positions; not to mention whatever credibility he might have had as champion of mainstream conservatism.
If Senator McCain thinks that equality is expendable, his daughter does not.
Meghan McCain recently described the fight for gay and lesbian rights as "this generation's civil rights movement."
The younger McCain declared this week that: "I am a supporter of LGBT rights and am against DADT." At the same time, she condemned President Obama for failing to push hard enough to get rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
That's a fair criticism. Obama should be far more forceful on this issue. And it ought never be forgotten that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a product of a past Democratic administration.
But, on Tuesday, Senate Republicans—especially those Senate Republicans who fancy themselves to be responsible—had a chance to take a vote against discrimination.
They failed to do so, and there is simply no way to spin those votes as humane or honorable—let alone in the best interest of the country.