DREAM Act, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal derail defense bill amid Republican filibuster

By | 09.21.10 | 5:29 pm
DREAM Act rally

Efforts to add the DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill failed Tuesday when Republicans filibustered the bill. (Mark Samala/ZUMApress.com)

Senate Republicans filibustered the defense authorization bill Tuesday afternoon, ending a push by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants in exchange for school or military service, and a repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy for homosexuals serving in the military as amendments to the legislation.

The defense authorization bill has been passed for the past 48 consecutive years. It failed to move to the Senate floor today in a 56-43 vote, with no “yea” votes by Republicans.

The main argument marshaled against continuing with the defense bill was that both a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and the DREAM Act have too little relevance to defense. But both proposals have major implications for those who serve — or wish to serve — in the military. A repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, without fear their sexual orientation would lead to discharge from the military. The DREAM Act would allow illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to earn legal status by serving in the military or attending two years of college, providing what many have said would be a needed boost for military recruitment.

After the filibuster, Reid said he will continue to push for the DREAM Act, which was originally proposed in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — who voted against bringing the defense authorization bill to the floor today. The DREAM Act has come up several times since 2001 but only went to a vote as a standalone bill once, in 2007. Although he did not specify a timeline, Reid said today the act is not dead.

“We’re going to vote on the DREAM Act, it’s just a question of when,” Reid said after the filibuster. “This isn’t the end of this. We’re going to continue to move on.”

The vote was a major disappointment to immigration reform advocates and GLBT rights supporters. Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said in a statement the senators “who led and supported the filibuster effort should be ashamed.”

Mary Giovagnoli, director of Immigration Policy Center, said the vote showed “a lack of leadership” by Republican senators. “This was clearly putting procedural wrangling and partisan politics over social issues that are clearly something the American public wants action on,” she added.

Democrats needed at least one Republican to vote to move forward with the bill to stop a Republican filibuster. But procedural squabbles deterred Republicans from voting for the legislation, arguing that Reid was denying them the chance to amend the bill.

Reid previously said he would allow only three amendments: a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the DREAM Act; and an amendment to ban the practice of placing “secret holds” on presidential nominees.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, repeatedly quoted a floor statement by Reid last Thursday, when Reid said he was “willing to work with Republicans on a process that will permit the Senate to consider these matters and complete the bill as soon as possible.”

But Republicans argued the short timetable before a pre-election recess would prevent them from adding enough amendments. Two moderate Republicans who Democrat leaders hoped would vote for moving forward with the bill, Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, decided to vote against cloture for this reason.

“I will defend the right of my colleagues to offer amendments on this issue and other issues that are being brought up in connection with the defense authorization bill,” Collins said this morning. “They need to have a civil, fair and open debate on the Senate floor.”

To that end, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a motion to move to debating the bill only if Democrats would agree that none of the first 20 amendments would relate to immigration — effectively killing off the chance that Reid could add the DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill. He also tried to get Reid to agree to allow Republicans and Democrats to offer amendments in an alternating order. “We should start work on this bill and tackle the unrelated issues later,” McConnell said. Reid objected and brought the bill to a vote.

Many Republicans’ arguments against moving the bill to the floor were rooted in their opposition to a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal or to the DREAM Act. Some Republicans also argued a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would be inappropriate, because the Department of Defense has not yet completed its review of how the policy would impact the military. The proposed amendment would have remained pending until review was completed and submitted to the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Opponents of the DREAM Act also relied on the argument that it did not belong in the defense authorization bill to begin with. “We’ve opposed the DREAM Act on its merits and we were certainly opposed to the use of the military authorization bill as a vehicle to reward people who are in the country illegally,” Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the pro-enforcement group FAIR, said after the vote.

But the DREAM Act has supporters in the defense community. The Department of Defense’s Strategic Plan for the 2010 to 2012 fiscal years recommends passage of the DREAM Act as a way to help the military “shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force.”

Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a retired general, encouraged Republicans to vote for the DREAM Act during an appearance on Meet the Press Sunday. “We can’t be anti-immigration,” Powell said. “Immigrants are fueling this country. Without immigrants, America would be like Europe or Japan with an aging population and no young people coming in to take care of it. We have to educate our immigrants. The DREAM Act is one way to do that.”

Moving forward, immigrant rights advocates said they will continue to pressure Senators to support the DREAM Act, whether it be as a standalone bill or an amendment to another piece of legislation.

“This isn’t lost,” said Juan Escalante, a spokesperson for The DREAM is Coming. “We’re going to push Senator Reid to make sure the DREAM Act happens in another way.”

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