By NANCY A. YOUSSEF AND DAVID LIGHTMAN, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's call on Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" is likely to founder after key House members were defeated in Tuesday's elections.
The House, which will be led by the GOP in January, is likely instead to push for an increase in the Defense Department's $708 billion budget and may take actions to keep the military prison at Guantanamo Bay open and to call for a shift in Afghanistan strategy, newly empowered Republicans and political observers said.
Among the losers in the House of Representatives were at least 10 Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri. Two-term Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., an Iraq war veteran who added an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have repealed "don't ask, don't tell," also lost.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., 72, a nine-term veteran, is expected to replace Skelton as committee chairman. Wednesday, McKeon called for leaving military spending largely intact. Previously, he said he favored leaving "don't ask, don't tell" on the books.
Congress could vote to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" during its lame-duck session, which begins on Nov. 15. But a Pentagon study on the impact of the repeal, which would allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, won't be completed until Dec. 1 and many top military commanders are against repealing the ban.
"It's hard to think of a Democrat who wants to risk the wrath even though people support" repealing the ban, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group.
Once the new Congress convenes in January, few expect the Republican House leadership to press the issue.
With the defeat of Murphy, there's also no one with the credibility to offer up a repeal effort, Korb said.
"I don't think there is anyone else," Korb said.
A Republican-led House is also likely to clash with the Obama administration on other defense issues.
McKeon has been openly critical of the administration's proposed 1 percent increase in the Pentagon budget, calling it "a Defense Department in decline."
In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation earlier this year, McKeon called a proposed decrease in weapons acquisition money "a sizeable and unacceptable decrease."
"One percent real growth over the next five years is a net cut for investment and procurement accounts," he said. "Pressures on the defense budget ... warrant a higher top line."
McKeon promised Wednesday to sustain the defense budget and said he intended tougher questioning of the administration's Afghanistan and terrorism policies.
"We must place a renewed emphasis on oversight," he said. "Our efforts will be relevant and directly tied to the front-line war fighter in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the protection of the U.S. homeland."
The Senate refused to take up the defense spending bill for fiscal year 2011, which began on Oct. 1, over Murphy's amendment to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who survived a bruising re-election campaign, said Wednesday that he hopes to bring the legislation up for a vote during the lame-duck session.
However, he warned that such bills take a lot of time and that it may not be ready before the new Congress convenes next year.