Today, U.S. Senator Mark Udall joined a majority of his colleagues in voting to begin debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and would have ended the military's outdated "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, among other important national security provisions. Unfortunately, Republicans blocked the legislation using a procedural tactic that meant 60 votes were needed to begin debate on the substance of the bill. The vote therefore failed 56-43.
The National Defense Authorization Act funds our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and provides critical support for service members -- including fair pay and benefits for troops. It includes a behavioral health program Senator Udall authored based on one at Fort Carson, which helps ensure soldiers can get treatment before, during and after they serve on the battlefield. The bill also funds national security programs such as nuclear nonproliferation, among others, and it sets other military policies, including, this year, the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
If the bill can't be debated and passed in this fiscal year, it will be the first time in 49 years that defense authorization legislation has not passed into law.
"We've reached a level of unprecedented gridlock when legislation for our troops, our national security, and our leadership in the 21st century, is prevented from even coming to a debate," said Senator Udall, a member of the Armed Services Committee. "Today, my colleagues are blocking provisions to enhance our military's readiness, improve our service members' training, and upgrade equipment and resources to succeed in combat."
Senator Udall said he was particularly concerned because the bill includes important provisions for the health and resiliency of our service members and their families. His behavioral health provision urges the expansion of the use of Fort Carson's successful Mobile Behavioral Health Teams, which embed credentialed behavioral health providers in a single battalion within a brigade combat team -- both during deployment and in garrison -- to help facilitate early identification and treatment of behavioral health problems.
"Our service members and their families sacrifice more than many of us can imagine, and we've demanded a great deal of them for a long time," Senator Udall said. "I've focused my efforts on how we can help them recover from mental wounds when they come home. Fort Carson in Colorado has had its share of difficulties addressing these needs, but we're seeing progress, and my provision would enable the military to expand one particularly successful program."
Another provision, which he also authored, extends TRICARE health insurance for military families, enabling the children of active duty service members and retirees to stay on their parents' policies until age 26.
Senator Udall has also been a leader on the efforts to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." A co-sponsor of the legislation to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he believes the outdated policy has weakened our national defense as it forces out otherwise qualified service members solely because of their sexual orientation.
"I know that repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy is contentious, but it's been used as an excuse to sink this important bill," Senator Udall said. "This outdated policy undermines the strength of our military and the fairness of our great nation, and we owe it to our troops and all Americans to have an open debate on it here in the Senate."
"At a time when we're fighting two wars, we need every skilled service member we have -- airmen, mechanics, translators, and others," Senator Udall continued. "We should not have a policy of dismissing qualified men and women and jeopardizing our national security because some in the military are still set on unfair or intolerant ways."
The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" provision would have respected the Pentagon's timeline for studying how to repeal the law. It would give military leaders the flexibility to implement repeal in a way that tracks with military standards and guidelines. As Admiral Michael Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the "right thing to do."