A last-ditch effort to scrap the military's controversial ban on gays and lesbians serving openly failed today after several moderate Republicans whose votes were considered crucial voted against repealing the "don't ask don't tell" policy.
President Obama said he was "extremely disappointed" that the bill failed.
The "don't ask, don't tell" law "weakens our national security, diminishes our military readiness and violates fundamental American principles of fairness, integrity and equality," the president said in a written statement. "While today's vote was disappointing, it must not be the end of our efforts. I urge the Senate to revisit these important issues during the lame duck session."
It came as a surprise when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., today abruptly called a procedural vote on the annual Defense Authorization bill that included a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"There is simply no evidence and no justification -- legal, military or otherwise -- for keeping this policy in place," Reid said on the Senate floor, emphasizing that "it would be unconscionable to leave here without passing it."
For the past few days, Reid had been locked in negotiations with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican who supports the repeal but said she might vote against the bill on procedural grounds.
After a floor speech today in which she said she was "perplexed and frustrated" by Reid's decision to call a vote this afternoon, it was expected that she would vote against the repeal, but she ultimately backed the effort.
However, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- who originally said she would vote for repeal -- voted no. Other moderate Republican senators, including Olympia Snowe, R-Maine and Scott Brown, R-Mass., also voted no, along with a majority of Senate Republicans. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia also voted against repeal.
The bill needed 60 votes to advance, but it received only 57.
On the legal front, the Obama administration is preparing legal briefs in support of "don't ask don't tell" and continues to argue that it does not want the repeal to come from the courts. The briefs, which challenge a lower court's finding that the policy is unconstitutional, are due by Jan. 24.
Collins and Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who caucuses with Democrats, said after the vote that they now will introduce free-standing legislation -- separate from the annual defense authorization bill -- to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"Sixty -- and I think maybe more than 60 members of the United States Senate -- have made clear that they support the repeal of 'don't ask don't tell,' and while that is the case, and it is the case, we are not going to give up," Lieberman said.
Lieberman said Reid has asked to co-sponsor the free-standing bill to repeal the policy and has promised to put it on an already-packed lame-duck calendar.
Passing the measure at this point will be far from easy because lawmakers already have a long to-do list for a short time frame. But both Lieberman and Collins argued that they have enough votes.
Collins, sticking with the GOP's line that the Senate first should resolve the issues of the Bush tax cuts and government funding before proceeding to any other matters, said the stand-alone bill can pass if it is brought to the floor at the right time.