WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked an effort to repeal the ban on gays from serving openly in the military, handing gay rights groups a defeat in their last chance any time soon to overturn the law known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation, which authorized $726 billion in defense spending. The vote was 56-43.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, had been seen as the crucial 60th vote because she supports overturning the military ban. But Collins sided with her GOP colleagues in arguing that Republicans weren't given sufficient leeway to offer amendments to the wide-ranging policy bill.
The vote fell mostly along party lines, although Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both D-Ark., sided with Republicans to block the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also voted against the measure as a procedural tactic. Under Senate rules, casting his vote with the majority of the Senate enables him to revive the bill at a later date.
Advocates of lifting the 17-year-old ban had been optimistic that the Democratic-controlled White House and Congress could overcome objections to repeal. The move is unpopular among Republicans, military officers and social conservatives.
Gay rights advocates now worry they have lost a crucial opportunity to change the law. If Democrats lose seats in elections this fall, repealing the ban will prove even more difficult — if not impossible — next year.
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.
Top defense officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, have said they support a repeal but want to move slowly to ensure changes won't hurt morale.