Dec. 22 2010 10:34 AM

Dec. 18 was quite a down-and-up day in the U.S. Senate

For those of us who care deeply about justice, fairness and reason in public policy, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010, was a day for anguish and jubilation.

It started badly in the U.S. Senate when proponents of the DREAM Act fell five votes short. What a shame it is when a vote of 55 to 41 means a loss, but that’s the reality, thanks to the Republican Party’s abuse of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which allows the minority to effectively kill legislation unless the majority can muster 60 of 100 votes.

The DREAM Act would legalize U.S. residents who arrived in the country illegally as children and graduated high school, as long as they serve two years in the military or complete two years at a four-year college or university. The idea, of course, is that these are people who were brought into the country illegally through no fault of their own and were successfully assimilated into the culture. These should be the easiest immigrants to legalize, politically speaking. The bill passed in the House of Representatives on Dec. 8.

But, only 52 of 58 Democrats and Independents voted yes. Three Republicans voted yes: Bob Bennett of Utah (who’ll leave office next week and has nothing to lose), Richard Lugar of Indiana (one of our favorite Republicans) and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (who lost the August GOP primary but then mounted what appears to be a successful write-in campaign in the November general election—the results are still under legal challenge).

Five Democrats voted no, and one (Joe Manchin of West Virginia) didn’t vote. The Foul Five are Max Baucus and John Tester of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska (perhaps the worst Democrat in the Senate) and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

The DREAM Act’s loss was overshadowed by one of the finest moments in the history of gay rights when the Senate voted later that day to repeal the law that contains the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In 1993, under the Clinton administration, Congress passed the law that allowed the military to kick from the service any person who tells someone that he or she is gay or is discovered to be gay. We’re overjoyed that the discriminatory, unconstitutional policy will soon be a relic.

We’ll take this opportunity to thank the eight brave Republican senators who voted for repeal: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Murkowski of Alaska (two for two!) and George Voinovich of Ohio. Without at least five of them, discrimination would still be the law of the land—until being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, that is.

Shame on the 31 Republicans who voted to maintain that bigoted policy. They listen to people like Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, who noted for The New York Times that a Pentagon survey “indicated that 32 percent of Marines and 21.4 percent of Army combat troops would leave the military sooner than planned if ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ were repealed.” And they listen to people like Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, who said repeal would result in death and serious injury because openly gay Marines would cause “distraction.”

Well, if troops bail early because they don’t like the person holding the weapon next to them, then perhaps their commitment to service isn’t quite strong enough. And if a person’s sexual orientation creates a deadly distraction, then Amos and Co. are doing a terrible job of preparing Marines for dealing with minor wartime distractions. But we think the Marines can handle it, and we remind the general that leadership happens at the top.

Passage of the DREAM Act, along with repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would have made a banner day for fairness. Unfortunately, the window appears closed, what with the Republicans taking control of Congress in January. We wish they could see past their ideology and realize that young immigrants are often some of the most driven people, who cherish the education they’ve been given and are poised to excel and contribute to the economy and society. All they need is legal status in place of punishment for something they didn’t do.

We’re proud of the young immigrants who risked emerging from the shadows to tell their inspiring stories and push for the DREAM Act’s passage. And we urge them to keep fighting.

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