Senate Republicans blocked repeal of "Don't ask, Don't tell" Thursday, significantly dimming prospects that the ban on gays serving openly in the military will be lifted during this lame-duck session of Congress.
The 57-40 vote came on a motion to bring the giant defense budget bill, which included repeal of "Don't ask, Don't tell" (DADT), to the floor, with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid unable to muster the 60 votes to launch debate.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had pinned his hopes on the Senate for an orderly implementation of the change in military policy. The House voted this fall to repeal the 17-year-old law, and a positive Senate vote would have allowed the Pentagon to begin a lengthy process to actually lift the ban.
Unless the Senate acts this month, it is likely the courts will order an immediate repeal, an outcome Gates has said would lead to chaos and precisely the kind of disruption of morale and combat readiness many critics of repeal
Reid and Maine Republican Susan Collins had tried this week to reach a deal to allow debate on the defense budget legislation. Collins was one of three Republicans, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who had said they would vote for repeal of DADT. But Brown and Murkowski joined other Republicans in voting to bypass debate on the defense legislation until after the Senate considers extending the Bush-era tax cuts and other matters.
The vote coincided with the release of a new Gallup poll
showing that two-thirds of Americans want the DADT law off the books.
The Defense Department had reached a similar finding with a yearlong study
which surveyed 255,000 of the 2.5 million service members, as well as their families. It found the majority would not oppose serving with gays or lesbians and did not think it would disrupt combat readiness or unit cohesion.
In urging the Senate to take up repeal of DADT, Reid said the law banning gays from serving openly in the military was "obsolete, embarrassing and weakens our military ... repealing it will make our country stronger.''
The vote was taken without debate.
Advocates of repeal say there is less chance the new Congress, which takes office in January, will act favorably on repeal. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network,
which supports repeal, urged Reid to keep the Senate in session to try again for a vote.
"While difficult, realistic options still exist for advocates and senators to move repeal this year,'' said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of SLDN.
A U.S. District Court judge has already ruled
the gay ban unconstitutional and ordered an immediate worldwide lifting of all Defense Department regulations providing for investigation and discharge of gay and lesbian service members. The 9th
District Court of Appeals is currently weighing a Justice Department appeal to stay that order and overturn the lower court decision. A ruling from the appellate court is expected in March.
The Pentagon has prepared an 86-page plan
to rewrite regulations and educate the troops before repeal of the law is implemented. Defense Department officials said the process would take months, in part because 97,000 military personnel currently serving in Afghanistan could not receive the training until they return home after their tours, which last from four to 12 months.
Language in the legislation that failed Thursday would prohibit any change until the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs certify that implementation would not harm morale or readiness.
"I believe it would be unwise to push ahead with full implementation of repeal before more can be done to prepare the force -- in particular those ground combat specialties and units -- for what could be a disruptive and disorienting change,'' Gates told reporters
Similar reservations were expressed by the military chiefs in a lengthy and contentious Senate hearing
Dec. 3, during which they expressed much the same reservations as Gates. Of the four military service chiefs, the Marine commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, was most outspoken: " My recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time,'' he told the committee
Some 14,000 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged in the 17 years since the gay ban was enacted during the Clinton administration.