Picking up GOP votes on DADT repeal?

PICKING UP GOP VOTES ON DADT REPEAL?…. This week, the Senate Democratic leadership had to decide how to proceed on a must-pass the military spending bill (the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA). Would Dems keep a provision on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or would they back down to Republicans, scrap the provision, and pass the rest of the bill?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Wednesday Dems wouldn’t cave on this, setting up a December showdown. The strategy means, of course, that Dems will need at least two Republican votes to support funding for the troops when the measure reaches the floor.

Usually, at this point, attention would immediately turn to the Maine moderates (Collins and Snowe), but as of yesterday, two other players were in the mix.

The first was Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who appears to have won re-election in Alaska, and who told reporters late Thursday that if repeal “doesn’t hurt the performance, the morale, the recruitment” of the military, according to the upcoming Pentagon survey, she would not block repeal. Though she later hedged a bit on CNN, Murkowski’s vote in support of the spending bill appears to be a real possibility.

Yesterday, another GOP vote appeared to be in play, and this one was even more unexpected.

In a letter to constituents who have inquired about his position on DADT, GOP Senator John Ensign strongly suggests he is leaning towards supporting repeal of the policy, another sign that there may be enough tacit GOP support in the Senate for repeal to get it past a GOP filibuster.

“It is my firm belief that Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to fight and risk their lives in defense of this great nation,” Ensign writes in the letter, which I’ve obtained. “As a nation currently engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the focus of all decisions affecting military readiness, recruiting and retention, and unit cohesion should be to maximize the success of ongoing operations.”

Ensign’s office later walked this back, at least a little, emphasizing the need to wait for the Pentagon survey’s release, but given the original, in-writing statement, the conservative Nevadan’s vote certainly looks obtainable.

This is encouraging, and continues to suggest the GOP-mandated supermajority will be there when all is said and done. The downside, however, remains the same: the way to get the 60+ votes is for Dems to allow a two-week debate in December. With a severely limited lame-duck calendar, this would leave very little time for a variety of other priorities.

That said, if Dems bite the bullet and commit the time, the odds of final passage appear to be growing. Indeed, if Murkowki and Ensign break ranks, along with Collins and Snowe, I wouldn’t be too surprised if an even larger Republican contingent saw which way the winds were blowing, and decided there’s no point in ignoring public opinion on DADT and opposing troop funding during two wars.