Murkowski to Vote Yes, But There's a Catch

ABC News’ Jonathan Karl & Matthew Jaffe report:

The push to repeal the military’s controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy potentially received a big boost this afternoon when GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the apparent winner in Alaska as a write-in candidate, announced that she will support the repeal.

“After reviewing the DOD report and the testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by Defense Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, I have concluded that it is time to repeal the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law,” Murkowski said in a statement.

“We expect all who serve to serve with integrity, but under current law gay and lesbian service members may speak about their sexual orientation only at the risk of being discharged from performing the duties they have trained hard to carry out,” she said. “America is the loser when it denies those who are willing to make the great sacrifices demanded of our men and women in uniform the opportunity do so on grounds of sexual orientation. I agree with Defense Secretary Gates’ view that the military can successfully implement a repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law provided that proper preparations are implemented.”

But there is a catch. Murkowski, who lost the GOP primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller but then came back to defeat him as a write-in candidate in November’s election, said her support is contingent on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid allowing for “an open and fair amendment process.”

“My support for moving the Defense Authorization bill forward, which includes a repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, will depend on whether the majority allows for an open and fair amendment process,” Murkowski said. “This is a weighty, policy-laden bill that normally takes several weeks to debate and amend. If the majority attempts to push it through allowing little or no debate or votes on amendments, I will be inclined to oppose those efforts.”

That “yes, but” could prove to be significant. Murkowski’s concerns echo those of another GOP senator – Susan Collins of Maine – who said she believes the policy should be repealed but is demanding a full amendment process.

The Senate is expected to hold a procedural vote on the annual defense authorization bill – that includes a repeal of the policy – on Wednesday night. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, believes the Republicans are negotiating for a full amendment process in good faith.

“I have never been more confident that we have at least 60 votes for the defense authorization bill with a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in it. The only condition is that Republicans want to make sure that there is a fair process for amending the bill,” he told reporters today on Capitol Hill.

Lieberman said he had been meeting today with Collins and Reid to settle on what that “fair process” would ultimately entail.

“If we can’t reach an agreement on it today I will really appeal to Sen. Reid not to bring the defense bill with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to a vote because that would be doing it before we know that the votes we have are there. That’s my fear – that we’re not giving the bill and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell a fighting chance to pass. All it requires is a process agreement because on the substance, I repeat, 60 votes are certain and maybe one or two more.”

But Reid said later that with a packed Senate schedule – including taxes, government funding, and the START treaty with Russia – he is planning to go forward with tonight’s vote.

“I’m considering making it so it’d be possible to offer 15 amendments,” Reid said, noting that 10 of those would come from Republicans. “I don’t know with Christmas staring right down our throats, with START and everything else, why that wouldn’t be reasonable.”

Complicating matters further might be Senate Republicans’ stated refusal earlier this month not to vote for any measures until taxes and funding had been resolved. Reid today denounced the GOP’s move as merely an “artificial roadblock” designed to obstruct Democratic efforts.

“Putting up these artificial roadblocks is foolishness,” Reid said. “What in the world do they accomplish by saying we’re not going to allow you to do the START treaty, the defense authorization bill, until the tax bill is complete and spending is done?”

As of 4pm Wednesday, no agreement on amendments had been reached with Collins and other GOP senators, leaving the fate of the defense bill – and the repeal of the policy on gays – still up in the air.

--Jonathan Karl & Matthew Jaffe

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