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Last week probably marked the best yet for advocates of "don't ask, don't tell" repeal since last February when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen testified in favor of lifting the ban on lesbians and gays serving openly.

If only the lame-duck time line weren't so tight and Democratic majority leader Harry Reid weren't targeting the adjournment date of December 10, repeal might have a fighting chance.

Though the week swept in with reports that senators Carl Levin and John McCain, the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, were in talks to scrap repeal and potentially offer a stripped-down version of the defense bill, negotiations appear to have chilled for the moment. Apparently the talks were not received particularly well by some members on both sides of the aisle who weren't in them.

By week's end, they seemed a distant memory -- overshadowed by remarks from Secretary Gates and pro-repeal Pentagon leaks. Never has a Pentagon leak sounded so sweet.

Gates appears to have come to a grim realization -- if lawmakers fail to repeal the law legislatively, the courts may force the military to quit enforcing the law on a time line not of its making.

"This thing is gonna go one way or the other," Gates said. "And trying to do this all at once and under some kind of [judicial] fiat, I think is not the way to do it."

He actually got downright loquacious on the matter, urging repeal before the 112th Congress is seated. After months of routine assurances that both he and the president believe repeal would be much better after the Pentagon's working group study is released, it's curious, to be sure.

Any number of things could have happened really, but the most important point is that the GOP-holdover secretary of Defense is providing a prominent and convincing case for repeal.

Unfortunately, Sen. John McCain -- who previously said the policy should be changed once the military's leaders said it should -- was for listening to the top brass before he was against it.

Or maybe it's just selective listening. McCain is much more moved by the antirepeal comments of Obama's new Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos, than by the more powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen.

But General Amos really outdid himself, offering some of the most fanciful homophobic renderings on the matter to date.

"There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women -- and when you talk of infantry, we're talking our young men -- laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers," Amos said. "I don't know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that's what we're looking at. It's unit cohesion, it's combat effectiveness."

Well, according to leaks on the Pentagon's working group study, due out in early December, the report concludes that lifting the ban during a time of war would have "minimal and isolated incidents of risk to the current war efforts."

That really got McCain hot between the ears -- now he wants a different study.

"We need to look at whether it's the kind of study that we wanted," McCain told David Gregory on Meet the Press. "It isn't, in my view, because I wanted a study to determine the effects of the repeal on battle effectiveness and morale."

What exactly the Defense Department's study was about -- how to implement repeal versus whether to repeal -- has always been a matter of disagreement. Most GOP Congress members originally framed it as a study on whether the military should lift the ban, while Gates himself stated several times that it was an inquiry into the process of how to implement repeal, but his spokesman Geoff Morrell has often contradicted his boss.

Semantics aside, it's hard to imagine that a study what includes a $4.4 million survey asking service members if they are comfortable around gay people doesn't give some indication of how lifting the ban would affect unit cohesion.

But if that's not convincing enough, McCain will surely be happy to know that a 500-page report was already done on the matter back in 1993 by the RAND Corp. Certainly, he will be further mollified by the results, which found that allowing gays to serve openly wouldn't adversely affect the military.

But don't kid yourself -- McCain can huff and puff and call for hearings and a new study, but he can't stop the vote all by himself. Majority Leader Reid has the sole discretion to schedule that vote. And then Reid and the Democrats and the White House have to convince somewhere around two to five Republicans to vote against a filibuster -- which is conceivable, by the way, if the results of the survey turn out as reported.

The truth is, Defense secretary Gates has provided the type of opening that gives moderate Democrats and Republicans the political cover to say they voted in the best interests of the military -- they voted to give the military more control over the process than the courts will.

But time is the enemy of progress in this case. If Sen. Harry Reid sticks to an early adjournment date of December 10 and doesn't schedule a vote because, well, there just wasn't enough time, repeal will be dead.

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