Gates Reiterates Defense Bill Veto Threat, But Not Because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provisions about to be inserted into the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill are getting all the attention. But don’t forget that the bill is a venue for a much different showdown between the Pentagon and Congress. Defense Secretary Robert Gates certainly hasn’t.
For weeks now, Gates has done everything he can to get Congress not to put money into the bill for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which he has repeatedly characterized as a “costly and unnecessary” engineering curiosity. He’s even made a legacy-building speech at the library honoring the patron saint of sensible defense spending, Dwight D. Eisenhower, holding out the engine as the crucible of a fight over Pentagon bloat. Again and again for the past several weeks, he’s told anyone who would listen that if the second engine is in the defense bill, he will recommend that President Obama veto the entire half-trillion-dollar bill.
None of that actually stopped the House Armed Services Committee from putting $485 million for the engine into the bill last week. My understanding is that the second engine is not currently in the Senate version of the bill that will go through committee mark-up tomorrow. But now that the White House has blessed a legislative maneuver to make the defense authorization bill the vehicle to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a signature issue for the Democratic base, is Gates standing firm on his recommendation to veto a bill containing the second F-35 engine?
“Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, yes,” says Geoff Morrell, Gates’s spokesman.
It’s possible Gates won’t have to recommend any veto and Obama won’t have to consider using one. Although it’s more likely than not that the Senate committee will put funding for the engine in the bill, sometimes miracles happen. Over in the House, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) announced today that they’re going to push their own amendment during the floor vote to block the money for the second F-35 engine.
Those measures are perhaps the best chances for the politics of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” not to run smack into the politics of Gates’s efforts to curb defense waste. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal votes in the House and especially the Senate committee tomorrow are already extremely close, according to Hill sources and LGBT repeal advocates. Who knows how a potential veto recommendation from Gates on a different issue would impact members’ calculations.
Perhaps only two things here are clear. First, the congressional fight over repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t the congressional fight that Gates wanted the defense authorization to be about, even if he did issue reluctant support for the move earlier today. And second, it’s possible that Obama will be put in the difficult position of having to choose between a core priority for his much-snubbed supporters in the LGBT community and a core priority for his defense secretary.