The U.S. Senate has voted against considering a bill that would pave the way for homosexuals to serve openly in America's armed forces. The vote is a setback for one of President Obama's key campaign pledges, and threatens to surrender the matter to the judicial system, where a federal court has found the existing ban on openly-gay military service unconstitutional.
A year-long legislative initiative to repeal the law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" could end in defeat after a routine procedural vote in the Senate.
For a second time this year, Senate Democrats could not muster the three-fifths votes needed to begin debate on an annual defense spending bill. That bill contains a provision to end the ban on openly-gay military service, which the House of Representatives has already approved.
Democratic backers of repeal had been negotiating with a handful of Republican moderates who say that they, too, want to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." With talks dragging on and an end-of-year legislative session racing to a close, Democratic leaders insisted they could no longer delay a vote on the defense bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved for a vote, despite a dramatic plea on the Senate floor from Senator Susan Collins of Maine to allow more time for negotiations on the terms of debate .
Collins, the only Republican to vote in favor of considering the defense bill, later said more Republicans could have been convinced to join her if the vote had been delayed. "There was a clear path forward to complete action on this important bill. The majority leader decided to prematurely hold a cloture [procedural] vote that he knew would not succeed," she said.
But Senator Reid said Republican obstructionism was to blame, particularly from those who oppose repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". "The other side [Republicans] knows it doesn't have the votes to take this repeal out of the Defense Authorization Act. They have been holding up this bill for a long, long time," she said.
The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has pledged to block all legislation until the Senate completes work on critical fiscal and economic matters. "Our friends on the other side [Democrats] are more interested in pleasing special interest groups than in addressing our nation's job crisis," he said.
But Senator Reid said forcing gay troops to lie about their sexuality is counter to American values and core military values, and ending the practice is a worthy endeavor. "We can no longer ask our troops to die for a flag that represents justice, and ask them to be false to themselves while they do it," he said.
In addition to ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the bill provides funding to the entire U.S. military, including pay raises for service members. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, has said he would strip "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" if doing so would ensure the bill's passage by year's end.
That appears more likely now than ever. But if prospects for repeal have dimmed, they have not been extinguished entirely. Standing next to Senator Collins, Independent Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut pledged to introduce a stand-alone bill on allowing openly-gay military service that could be voted on in coming days.
"In so far as the effort to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", it ain't [isn't] over," he said.
Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has the backing of President Barack Obama, who expressed disappointment with the vote. Also backing repeal are his defense secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chief's of Staff, and, according to a recent Pentagon study, a solid majority of those in uniform. Opposing repeal are several chiefs of specific military branches, some military chaplains, and others. Resistance to serving alongside openly-gay colleagues appears highest in combat units, particularly among Marines.
A federal appeals court is reviewing a lower court decision striking down "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as unconstitutional. Some legal scholars believe, if the law is not changed legislatively, it eventually will be terminated by the judicial branch.