Most of the high-profile voices in the debate over repealing the ban on openly homosexual men and women in the military say they want to end the policy. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for instance, has said for years that he wants the ban to end, just not anytime soon. Similarly, GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts all say they oppose the ban, but procedural bickering last week they may have scuttled the best hopes for ending it legislatively in the foreseeable future. [See who donates the most to McCain.]
But other options remain for ending the military's ban. The House is expected this week to take up a stand-alone bill to end the ban outright, while the Senate is also fabricating similar legislation. There are likely enough votes in the House to get the measure through, staffers say, and possibly in the Senate as well--provided that the already crowded calendar allows for both. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
Supporters of ending the ban say that senators missed a golden opportunity to resolve the issue last week. On Thursday, a procedural vote to advance the 2011 defense authorization bill, which includes a provision effectively ending the ban, failed to reach the 60 votes needed to clear a threatened Republican filibuster. With the Christmas recess fast approaching, and the calendar clogged with other business like the New START treaty and the Bush tax cut extension, it seems unlikely there will be time this year to submit the measure to another vote. And with more GOP lawmakers taking office in the next Congress, support for ending the ban could suffer.
In the wake of the failed vote, Collins and Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman announced that they would introduce a stand-alone bill to repeal the ban for consideration before the Senate adjourns.
Of course, the legislative avenue is not the only available route to ending the 17-year-old policy. If Congress fails to act, the courts may step in and overturn the ban. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that this is the least palatable option for the war fighters he oversees. A long-awaited report from the military, released this month, found that repeal was both possible and largely supported by those in uniform.
Alexander Nicholson, an advocate for ending the ban and a former Army interrogator who was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," said after last week's vote that "politics prevailed over responsibility."
Collins, the Republican point person on the bill, argued for additional time to debate the defense measure and wanted the option to offer amendments. Saying she was negotiating in good faith, Collins expressed surprise and frustration when Sen. Harry Reid pushed for the vote on Thursday afternoon. "Without a fair process, the motion to proceed to the bill would likely fail," she had warned earlier in the week.
In September, Collins yanked her support for the same bill over Democrats' refusal to allow amendments, pushing the issue into the lame-duck session. And though she voted to overcome the filibuster on Thursday after it was clear the votes were lacking, the motion failed as she'd predicted. Brown and Murkowski, though opponents of the ban, ended up voting no on the procedural vote, adhering to the GOP pledge to block any legislation until the fight over the Bush-era tax cuts is settled. Sen. Joe Manchin, the newly elected Democrat from West Virginia, also voted no.
While it is possible the leaders will bring the measure back up for a vote before the end of this Congress, staffers say that a path to passage is hard to see. Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who supports ending the ban, took to the Senate floor immediately after the vote, calling the GOP's move a "procedural slap in the face." Moreover, the vote suggests that a policy opposed by most senators (and an overwhelming majority of Americans), will remain for now the law of the land.