WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked an effort by Democrats and the White House to lift the ban on gays from serving openly in the military, voting unanimously against advancing a major defense policy bill that included the provision.
The mostly partisan vote dealt a major blow to gay rights groups who saw the legislation as their best hope, at least in the short term, for repeal of the 17-year-old law known as "don't ask, don't tell."
If Democrats lose seats in the upcoming congressional elections this fall, as many expect, repealing the ban could prove even more difficult — if not impossible — next year. The Senate could take up the measure again during a lame-duck session after the elections, but a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hasn't decided whether to do so.
"The whole thing is a political train wreck," said Richard Socarides, a White House adviser on gay rights during the Clinton administration.
Democrats included the repeal provision in a $726 billion defense policy bill, which authorizes a pay raise for the troops among other popular programs. In a deal brokered with the White House, the measure would have overturned the 1993 law banning openly gay service only after a Pentagon review and certification from the president that lifting the ban wouldn't hurt troop morale.
But with little time left for debate before the November ballot, the bill had languished on the Senate calendar until gay rights groups, backed by pop star Lady Gaga, began an aggressive push to turn it into an election issue.
Earlier this month a federal judge in Los Angeles declared the ban an unconstitutional violation of the due process and free speech rights of gays and lesbians. The decision was the third federal court ruling since July to assert that statutory limits on the rights of gays and lesbians were unconstitutional.
Reid agreed to force a vote on the bill this week and limit debate, despite Republican objections. A Nevada Democrat in a tight race of his own this fall, he also pledged to use the defense bill as a vehicle for an immigration proposal that would enable young people to qualify for U.S. citizenship if they joined the military.
Republicans alleged that Reid was using the defense bill to score political points with the Democratic base.
"This is not a serious exercise. It's a show," said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Democrats countered that the bill merely reflects public opinion. Recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans think the ban on gays in the military should be overturned.
"We're going to fight for this," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
But at least for now, the question of how and when to change the policy returns to the Pentagon, which had set a December deadline to complete a study of the effects of lifting the ban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that he supports President Barack Obama's goal of repeal, but Gates made it clear he thought the process should move gradually.
It is not clear how quickly the Pentagon might make its own recommendations. Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell declined to comment Tuesday on what he called "an internal procedural matter for the Senate."
Initially, advocates had thought that Democrats might win the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP objections and advance the bill. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican, was seen as a crucial vote because she supports overturning the ban.
But Collins ultimately sided with her GOP colleagues in arguing that the bill shouldn't advance because Republicans weren't given sufficient chance to offer amendments to the wide-ranging policy bill.
Democrats also failed to keep all of their party members in line. Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas, voted with Republicans to scuttle the bill. The vote was 56-43, four short of the 60 required to advance under Senate rules.
Lincoln said she objected to the limits on debate and wanted a chance to offer amendments that would benefit her state. In a statement, Pryor said the bill deserved more serious debate than was being allowed.
"There needs to be a genuine and honest effort to craft a defense bill that senators from both parties can support, because supporting our troops should not ever be a partisan issue," he said.
When it became clear that Democrats would lose, Reid cast his own vote in opposition as a procedural tactic. Under Senate rules, doing so enables him to revive the bill at a later date.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said no decision had been made as to when Reid might call up the bill again.
The episode upset many advocates, who believe that neither Obama nor Reid did enough to see the measure through. Meanwhile, conservative groups hailed the vote as a victory for the troops.
"At least for now they will not be used to advance a radical social agenda," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law since its inception in 1993. Although most dismissals have resulted from gay service members outing themselves, gay rights' groups say it has been used by vindictive co-workers to drum out troops who never made their sexuality an issue.