WASHINGTON-An emotionally- and politically-charged showdown is set to unfold in the Senate today over whether gays should be able to serve openly in the military.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, will be defending his proposed repeal of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which bars gays from serving openly in the military.

His main opponent in the fight is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom Lieberman endorsed for president in 2008, a move that fueled liberal distrust and dislike of Lieberman across the country.

Neither lawmaker would predict the outcome of this long-simmering issue. But the fate of the gays-in-the-military policy will be complicated by myriad other factors, including the short congressional calendar and a hot-button immigration proposal that Democrats hope to attach to the underlying defense bill.

Lieberman said it should be a straightforward debate, at least on his provision. “This is the frontier of the civil rights movement now, to protect people from discrimination based on their private sexual lives or orientation,” Lieberman said.

The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy first put in place in 1993 under then-President Bill Clinton, is included in a broader $725 billion defense measure that will authorize a raft of military programs. The amendment, which Lieberman offered with other senators, would not take effect until after the Pentagon completes a study, due out Dec. 1, of the possible impact on troops, and also certifies that a repeal would not have any negative impact on the troops.

Lieberman said overturning the 1993 policy is long overdue. “You’re basically punishing someone for their status as opposed to their behavior,” he said. “Gay and lesbian members of the military should be judged on how they perform as soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen-not on their sexual orientation.”

But McCain said it could be “very harmful” to rush into repeal. “Without a proper study and assessment of the impact on battle effectiveness and morale, I think it’s a very serious mistake,” he said. He has vowed an all-out fight to strip the repeal language from the bill.

With a vote set for Tuesday, outside groups on both sides have mobilized to press wavering lawmakers. Lieberman said it’s unclear whether proponents can get the 60 votes needed to end a Republican-led filibuster.

Republicans have taken issue with more than just the Don’t Ask provision. They are also concerned that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, will move to limit the number of amendments GOP senators can offer to the underlying bill, along with Reid’s plan to attach the so-called DREAM Act to the defense measure.

The DREAM Act aims to address the status of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The bill would give them a path to citizenship under certain conditions, if, for example, they have graduated from high school and attended at least two years of college or served two years in the military.

Democrats have “made this needlessly controversial,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky.  The defense bill, he said, is “being used as a platform for some political votes right before the election.”

There’s no question that a vote on the immigration measure could help drum up support among Hispanic voters, who could give Democrats a much-needed boost in the looming mid-term elections. But a spokesman for Reid said the DREAM Act was vital to national security, pointing to an assessment that it could help build military readiness.

Lieberman said that if he and other supporters can’t overcome GOP opposition Tuesday, he was confident the bill would win passage before the end of the year. As for his friendship with McCain, he said it would be unaffected by this debate.

“We’ll have a good fight and when it’s over, we’ll sit down and have dinner together and go on to what’s next,” he said.

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