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Senate Republicans Lead Filibuster of Defense Authorization Bill

Following months of public speculation and debate, Senate Democrats were unable to garner the required 60 votes in order to overcome the Republican-led filibuster of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (S. 3454). Republican senators were united in their opposition to the bill, which, in addition to authorizing the budget for the Department of Defense for the coming fiscal year, contained amendments that would allow servicemembers and their family members to obtain abortion services at military hospitals and would overturn the law barring openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving in the military, more commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). Arkansas Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor joined all Republicans in voting not to bring the bill to the floor for a vote on September 21, 2010. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who was a prominent supporter of the bill, switched his vote at the last second and voted not to bring the bill to the floor, in a procedural maneuver that preserves his ability to bring the bill back up for consideration at a future date.[1]
While the provision to repeal DADT received the lion’s share of the media attention, the amendment to allow abortion care in military facilities went largely unnoticed by the media. The amendment was offered when the bill was considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee by Senator Roland Burris (D-IL) and was approved in a 15–12 vote.[2] The Burris Amendment, if enacted, would reverse decades of policies restricting female servicemembers’ ability to obtain abortion services in military facilities, even if they pay for the procedures using their own funds. Since 1988, there has been some restriction in place as to how servicemembers and/or their female family members can access abortion in military facilities.[3] Prohibiting abortion services at military facilities forces servicemembers and their families to seek care elsewhere and creates numerous obstacles, especially for those serving overseas. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, women in the military who choose to terminate a pregnancy may face significant obstacles, “including lack of adequate local health facilities, lack of trained medical personnel or being stationed in remote or hostile areas.”[4] In addition, abortion is either illegal or heavily regulated in many countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan; in that situation, servicemembers would be forced to request emergency leave in order to obtain an abortion, and “may face commanding officers who disapprove of abortion—a serious concern for women reliant on these officers for career advancement.”[5]
An amendment to the House of Representatives’ version of the Department of Defense authorization bill that would repeal DADT, offered by Representative Patrick Murphy (D-PA), passed the full House of Representatives on May 27, 2010 by a vote of 234–194. The following day, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a similar amendment to S. 3454 by a vote of 16–12.[6] If S. 3454 passes with the amendment to repeal DADT intact, the repeal would not take place until authorized by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen. In making the decision whether or not to sanction a repeal of DADT, President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Chairman Mullen would consult the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group report on the effects that repealing DADT likely would have on the military, which must be completed by December 1, 2010, but would not be required to adhere to its recommendations. 
The future of S. 3454 remains uncertain. Despite the fact that “Congress has approved the annual Pentagon bill for 48 consecutive years,” and the bill contains all of the funding for Department of Defense and a pay increase for servicemembers, the politically charged issue of DADT may prove too significant an obstacle.[7] The bill may be considered following the midterm elections on November 2, and could be delayed until after the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Review Working Group issues its report on December 1. Funding outlined in the bill currently is being extended by a continuing resolution that will expire on December 3.

[1] “Glossary,” United States Senate, accessed 27 September 2010, <>.
[2] “Uncertain Timing for Senate Consideration of Defense Authorization Bill Repealing Abortion Ban, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy,” National Partnership for Women and Families, (13 September 2010), accessed 27 September 2010, <>.
[3] S. 1124, 104th Cong., § 738, accessed 27 September 2010, <>.
[4] Amanda Simon, “Facts vs. Fiction on the Military’s Abortion Ban,” American Civil Liberties Union (10 June 2010), accessed 8 October 2010, <>.
[5] Kathryn Joyce, “Military Abortion Ban: Female Soldiers Not Protected by Constitution They Defend,” Religion Dispatches, 15 December 2009, accessed 27 September 2010, <>.
[6] “Historic Votes Are Cast, but Hurdles Remain for Ending ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’,” Washington Post, 29 May 2010, accessed 22 June 2010, <>.
[7] David M. Herszenhorn, “Move to End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Stalls in Senate,” New York Times, 21 September 2010, accessed 27 September 2010, <>.

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