Senate Republicans have blocked efforts to move forward on a massive defense spending bill that would have also repealed the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military. President Barack Obama had promised to repeal the ban on openly gay service members during his election campaign, and the defeat in the Senate is a setback for him and for gay rights activists.
The presiding officer of the Senate Tuesday, Democratic Senator Mark Begich announced the results of the vote on a motion to take up a $725 billion military spending bill, that included a measure to repeal a law that bans homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military.
"On this vote, the yeas are 56, the nays are 43, three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn not having voted in the affirmative, the motion is not agreed to," announced Mark Begich.
The motion needed 60 votes to advance. The vote fell mainly along party lines, although two Democratic senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both from Arkansas, voted with Republicans to block the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, also voted against the measure as a procedural tactic, so that he can revive the bill at a later date.
In a practice that is common in the Senate, Senator Reid had attached two controversial measures to the otherwise popular defense spending bill. One was repealing a law enacted in 1993 that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the U.S. military as long as their sexual orientation is not disclosed. The other, known as the DREAM Act, would give students in the country illegally a path to U.S. citizenship if they have attend college or serve in the military.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, reacted with disappointment to the legislative defeat.
"It is outrageous and it is sad that the Republicans have banded together to refuse to even let us begin debate on a bill which is so critically important to our nation's defense, and so vital to the well-being of the men and women in uniform and their families," said Carl Levin.
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Republicans accused Democrats of playing election-year politics by seeking to include controversial issues in the defense spending bill intended to galvanize support among two key groups that predominately support Democrats, gays and lesbians and supporters of immigrants' rights.
"One can only draw the conclusion that this is all about elections, [pounds podium] not about the welfare, the well-being, and the morale and the battle effectiveness of the men and women who are laying it on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan today," said Senator John McCain.
Senator McCain and other Republican senators called on Democrats to wait until the Pentagon completes a review on what impact lifting the bill will have on the troops.
Before the vote, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a self-described Independent Democrat said the United States cannot afford to lose thousands of qualified and dedicated gay service members.
"Fourteen thousand, more than 14,000 members of our military have been put out of the military since 1993 under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, not because they weren't good soldiers, sailors, Marines or airmen, not because they violated any military code of conduct, but only because of their private sexual orientation," Lieberman said.
Lieberman also said the don't ask, don't tell law conflicts with American values such as equal opportunity under the law, fairness and service based on professional merit.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both openly supported repealing the ban on gays, but say they want to move slowly.
Pop music superstar Lady Gaga even entered the gays in the military fight, holding a rally Monday in Maine to appeal to two moderate Republican senators there, who ended up voting against the motion. Lady Gaga said perhaps the Pentagon should send home heterosexual service members who object to serving alongside gay servicemembers, instead of kicking out gays.
"Repeal don't ask, don't tell, or go home, go home, go home," shouted Lady Gaga.
A federal judge in California ruled the "don't ask, don't tell" law to be unconstitutional earlier this month.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the efforts to repeal the ban are not over, and the White House will continue to work with the Pentagon.
But gay rights advocates worry that Tuesday's Senate vote may have been their best opportunity to move forward on the issue, because experts predict that Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress in the November elections. Democrats now control 59 votes in the Senate.