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Uncertain Timing for Senate Consideration of Defense Authorization Bill Repealing Abortion Ban, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy

Uncertain Timing for Senate Consideration of Defense Authorization Bill Repealing Abortion Ban, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy

September 13, 2010 — In the weeks leading up the midterm elections, Senate Democrats face mounting pressure to advance the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill (S 3280), which includes an amendment that would allow abortion services at military hospitals, CQ Today reports. Regan Lachapelle, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the $725.9 billion bill "is on a list of possible items we could consider in the upcoming [four-week] work period" that begins today.

On Sept. 9, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips ruled the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law banning openly gay individuals from serving in the military unconstitutional. A repeal of the policy is also included in the defense authorization bill. Gay-rights advocates say the measure's best chance for passage is before the November elections, because they fear that Republicans could gain enough seats in this election cycle to block the provision (Donnelly, CQ Today, 9/10). The advocates are urging the Senate to take up the measure the week of Sept. 20. (Tiron, The Hill, 9/13).

The bill also includes an amendment by Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), which would repeal a policy that prohibits the provision of nearly all abortion services at military hospitals, even if paid for with private funds. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the amendment 15-12 in May. Under the amendment, military servicewomen would be able to obtain abortion care at military hospitals if they pay for the procedure with their own money (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/11). The House passed its version of the defense spending bill (HR 5136) in May but did not include language comparable to the Burris amendment.

According to CQ Today, Reid and other Democrats "want to make the most" of the remaining work period. A lengthy debate over the defense authorization measure "could hamper that goal by devouring potentially more than one-third of the time," CQ Today reports. Moreover, senators who face tough races in conservative states could be hesitant to take a stance on controversial provisions in the bill -- including the changes to "don't ask, don't tell" and military abortion policies -- until after the elections (CQ Today, 9/10).

GOP Raises Objections

Some Republican senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), object to bringing the bill to the floor because of their opposition to "don't ask, don't tell" and abortion provisions. Democrats could overcome the objections with a motion to proceed and a subsequent cloture vote to end debate, which would require 60 votes -- including the support of least one Republican, The Hill reports (The Hill, 9/13).

It is not clear if the GOP's concerns are enough to lead them to filibuster the defense bill, but Democratic leaders might decide to delay action on "any issue controversial enough to require a cloture vote -- or that even threatens to require one," including the defense authorization bill, according to CQ Today (CQ Today, 9/10).