Repeal of ban on gay service members blocked in Senate

WASHINGTON–In a highly-charged vote, Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a major defense bill Tuesday in part because it included a provision to repeal the Pentagon’s ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

Proponents of the measure, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, failed to win any Republican support and even lost two Democrats on the issue, leaving them four votes short of the 60 needed to break a GOP filibuster.

“This ain’t over,” Lieberman said Tuesday. He and others vowed to revive the issue after the November elections, when Congress will likely come back to Washington for a lame-duck session. After the outcome was clear, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to “No,” in a procedural move that will allow him to bring the bill back up again later this session.

Lieberman was a lead sponsor of an amendment in the bill to overturn the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which allows the military to discharge any openly-homosexual member in its ranks.

Almost 14,000 service members have been discharged under this policy, first implemented in 1993 under then-President Bill Clinton. “It’s the equivalent of an entire division of war fighters, who we sorely need,” Lieberman said. “We have wasted the $600 million spent to train them.”

Lieberman said proponents had enough votes to keep the Don’t Ask repeal in the bill, which is why, he suggested, opponents fought so hard to prevent a full debate and up-or-down vote.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other foes of the measure argued that Democrats were rushing the Pentagon into a repeal that could harm troop morale and effectiveness. Congress should leave this decision to military leaders, McCain argued. He also accused Democrats of using Tuesday’s vote to energize crucial constituencies in advance of the November elections.

Even some Republicans who had expressed support for repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy voted to block consideration of the defense bill. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate GOP senator from Maine, said that although she favored overturning the ban, she voted “no” because Democrats had moved to limit the number of amendments the GOP could to offer to the underlying legislation.

It’s unclear whether the dynamics will change enough after the elections for the bill to move forward. Congress has reauthorized the defense bill for the last 48 consecutive years, and it includes many popular elements, such as pay and benefit increases for military families.

But McCain said he would continue to fight any effort to move ahead until a Pentagon study is completed examining the impact and implementation of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That study is due Dec. 1, after the elections and when Republicans, who are likely to gain seats in the Senate, will have little incentive to compromise before a new Congress is sworn in.