The tone was set for a devastating rejection of an effort to end the 17-year-old policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military as soon as GOP senator Olympia Snowe sent out an ominous statement Monday afternoon.
By Tuesday afternoon, repeal advocates lost Sen. Susan Collins, who said she would join a GOP filibuster unless Senate majority leader Harry Reid agreed to open the debate. The loss of Collins was the Democrats' last best chance for beating a GOP filibuster that would prevent the Senate from moving forward with debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, to which the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal measure was attached.
By the time the dust settled, Republicans had prevailed 56-43. Repeal advocates swiftly decried the outcome as the product of a massive political failure but vowed not to give up till year's end despite an increasingly bleak outlook for the effort.
"Today's vote is a failure of leadership on the part of those who have been duly elected to serve this nation and to put the best interests of the country ahead of partisan politics," said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of the gay veterans group Servicemembers United. "It is simply inexcusable that this vote failed today."
But Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, acknowledged what everyone knew.
"We now have no choice but to look to the lame-duck session, where we'll have a slim shot," Sarvis said. "The Senate absolutely must schedule a vote in December, when cooler heads and common sense are more likely to prevail once midterm elections are behind us."
Indeed, Sen. Joseph Lieberman indicated earlier in the day that he fully expected Reid to push the legislation again following the November election.
"I spoke to Senator Reid today, and he's very clear and strong that he's going to bring this bill to the floor in November or December -- hopefully November -- because he has to, because the military needs the bill."
Lieberman said he didn't believe opponents of repeal had the votes to strip it out of the legislation.
"Maybe that's why they're fighting so hard," he offered.
Following the defeat, Sen. Carl Levin called it "outrageous" that a filibuster was used to block mere consideration of the legislation.
"It's a sad, sad day, when the defense authorization bill is filibustered to the point where we can't even debate that bill," Levin said. "The Senate filibuster on motions to proceed cannot be allowed to succeed."
If the Senate fails to pass the defense funding bill before the end of the year, Levin said a continuing resolution could be passed to address some budgetary needs of the Pentagon, but that such a fix would not suffice for all defense needs.
Sen. Jack Reed, who joined Levin at the press conference, said he hoped the Senate could still strike an agreement to debate the bill before recessing for the midterms. But he also suggested that the Pentagon itself may have funding needs that make the NDAA a more urgent consideration during the lame-duck session.
"But there will be increasingly, I think, specific issues that will emerge about provisions that they must have that I think will help convince some of our colleagues that we've gotta get this bill done," Reed said.
Levin was hesitant to signal the likelihood that the NDAA might get new life in the waning days of the congressional session but added, "I will do everything I can to see that the bill is brought up during lame duck."
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