When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led more than a dozen lawmakers onto a Capitol stage Tuesday to commemorate the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, she earned a minute-long standing ovation from a packed auditorium of gay-rights supporters.
But behind the scenes, several leading gay-rights advocates say it is Pelosi’s chief deputy and former rival, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who deserves the lion’s share of credit for pushing the legislation across the finish line in recent weeks.
“He brought it back from the dead twice,” said Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, who represented the liberal think tank in meetings on the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal bill.
In the aftermath of a legislative comeback story that surprised many on Capitol Hill, a host of lawmakers are taking a victory lap. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has won praise for shepherding the bill through the Senate, while Rep. Patrick Murphy (Pa.), an Iraq war veteran who lost his seat in November, has earned recognition as the chief sponsor in the House.
Gay-rights advocates describe Hoyer as the unsung hero of the painstaking push to end the military ban, giving him the kind of praise on gay rights more often reserved for the Speaker from San Francisco.
“At the moment where it was critical to get this done, Hoyer really stepped up to the plate and made it a priority,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and gay-rights advocate.
The vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, Fred Sainz, said Hoyer made the repeal effort “a personal cause of his.”
The advocates said their praise for Hoyer was not a criticism of Pelosi, whose commitment to ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” they said, never wavered.
“The Speaker has been for repeal of DADT since 1993. She’s an ardent supporter of LGBT equality,” Stachelberg said.
Yet at two crucial points during the yearlong effort, Hoyer’s involvement proved key, advocates said. And it was his late push to separate the repeal from a broader Defense authorization bill — which aides and advocates said came over initial objections from Pelosi — that ultimately won the day.
Hoyer has not been shy about touting his role in the repeal effort, and his office provided The Hill a detailed timeline of his work on the legislation both through May and in December. The majority leader noted in a press briefing Tuesday morning that the bill “was written at this table.” “I am very proud of that,” Hoyer told reporters.
Attached to the Defense bill, the repeal first passed the House in May despite efforts by Republicans to strip out the language ending the gay ban. Before the first House vote, Hoyer’s office drafted legislative language designed to mollify concerns expressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The changes provided for a delay in the implementation of the repeal until the Pentagon finished its report on the issue and until Gates certified that changing the military policy would not hinder troop readiness.
“The effort had to be to get the language in a place where it could get the votes in the Senate [Armed Services] committee, and get Gates to buy in,” Hoyer told The Hill in an interview.
Hoyer’s office won approval on the new language from Gates, Lieberman, Pelosi, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the White House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) then got support from the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) after agreeing to add another 60-day waiting period to the implementation process. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) also signed on, ensuring full Democratic support in the Armed Services Committee.
After passing the House, the Defense authorization bill, with the repeal amendment included, stalled in the Senate, unable to overcome a Republican filibuster. In the days before the legislation failed a second time in the Senate on Dec. 9, Hoyer’s office, along with Lieberman and gay-rights advocates, began crafting what Hoyer called a “Plan B” to get the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” passed during the rapidly closing window of the lame-duck session.
The plan called for the repeal to be split off from the Defense authorization and advanced as a standalone bill. Hoyer said he called Reid to give him “a heads-up” that the House would send the Senate a separate repeal bill. The Senate leader was receptive, Hoyer said, but he stopped short of promising a floor vote during the crowded final days of the session.
“Commitment would overstate what he gave me,” Hoyer said of Reid. “He said: ‘If you send it over, certainly we’re going to try to [bring] it up.’ ”
Before publicly announcing the new strategy, Hoyer spoke to five Republican senators: Susan Collins (Maine), George Voinovich (Ohio), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Dick Lugar (Ind.). All but Lugar told Hoyer they could support a standalone repeal of the military ban.
“I had a strong belief that yes, we had the votes,” Hoyer said.
On Dec. 13, Hoyer told Pelosi of his intent to bring up the bill again in the House, and the next day, he and Murphy introduced the legislation. On Dec. 15, it passed the House.
Meanwhile, the White House, several lawmakers and aides said, had prioritized the New START Treaty, pressuring the Senate to put that, rather than the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” at the top of its year-end list following the passage of the president’s tax-cut compromise last week.
Hoyer “was under a lot of pressure not to do this because it would endanger START. He refused to do that,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who said Pelosi also refused to bow to pressure to give up on ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
With GOP support in hand, Reid squeezed in the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” bill over the weekend, and it passed with 65 votes. Pelosi led an emotional signing ceremony at the Capitol on Tuesday, and President Obama will sign the repeal into law on Wednesday.
A Pelosi spokesman, Drew Hammill, said the Speaker and Hoyer “both played a critical role” in passing the repeal. “It shows how well they worked together,” he said.
In the interview, Hoyer, the outgoing majority leader, calling the victory on ending the military ban “a capstone.”
“This is clearly one of the significant accomplishments of this Congress,” he said. “This is a very, very significant statement on civil rights and treating people based on their character and their performance rather than on some arbitrary distinction.”