The effort to lift the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian service members had a major setback Tuesday when Senate Democrats failed to win the 60 votes needed to advance a defense bill that included conditional repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell law.
Arkansas Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor joined all Republicans in opposing the measure. And neither of Maine's Republican Sens. Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe, who had been the target of a media campaign by Lady Gaga, supported advancing it.
Gay rights advocates, who said they believed today's vote was the best opportunity in the foreseeable future to achieve a repeal, expressed disappointment at the vote but hope the Senate might still act after the November elections.
"Time is the enemy here," said Aubrey Sarvis of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, a gay and lesbian advocacy group. "We now have no choice but to look to the lame duck session where we'll have a slim shot. The Senate absolutely must schedule a vote in December when cooler heads and common sense are more likely to prevail once midterm elections are behind us."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would push for reconsideration of the legislation later this year.
"This ain't over," Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who supports repeal, said on the Senate floor.
Senate Republicans, led by John McCain of Arizona, had objected to Congress acting on a repeal before the Pentagon has completed an ongoing review of the impacts of changing the policy. That report is due in December.
Senate Republicans also accused Democrats of advancing the repeal measure and the DREAM Act amendment, which would provide a path to legal status to young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 15 and complete college or military service, for purely political reasons.
"This is a cynical ploy to try to galvanize and energize their base," McCain said ahead of the vote.
Meanwhile, Collins -- the lone Republican on the Armed Services Committee that voted in May to put the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell into the defense bill -- said she objected to Reid's limit to how many amendments could be attached to the bill if it moved to debate.
"Society has changed so much since 1993 and we need to change this policy as well," Collins said today on the Senate floor. "But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down the debate and preclude Republican amendments. That too is not fair."
But many Democrats said McCain and Republicans were the ones playing politics, because language in the Senate bill states any change to the current policy would depend upon completion of the military study and certification from the Pentagon that military readiness would not be harmed.
Critics of McCain also note he previously indicated an openness to a change in the policy if top military brass supported the move.
"The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it," McCain said in 2006.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen both endorsed ending the policy in Congressional testimony in May.
The House has already approved a conditional repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.