WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans dealt a severe and potentially fatal blow Tuesday to efforts this year to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bans openly gay people from serving in the armed forces.

Democrats were unable to sway a single Republican – including Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who said she supports repealing “don’t ask” – to begin debate on a defense authorization bill that included the repeal.

Democrats also failed to keep all of their party members in line. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas, voted with Republicans to block debate. The vote was 56-43, four short of the 60 required to advance the bill under Senate rules.

The failure to repeal the law, despite White House backing and Democratic majorities in Congress, marked a low point in the more than decade-long effort to end a policy begun under President Bill Clinton. Democrats thought this was their best chance to undo the 17-year-old measure after President Obama had won the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military leaders to get rid of it.

But Republicans objected that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had attached several politically motivated proposals to the measure.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who led the charge against repeal, called Reid’s plan a “blatant and cynical” political ploy aimed at galvanizing Democratic voters for the midterm elections.

The high-profile failure left some advocates of repeal feeling burned.

“The Democrats have been against ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ for more than a decade, and why we allowed this law to remain in effect for another two years is beyond me,” said Richard Soccarides, a former gay-rights adviser to Clinton. “The Washington-based gay-rights groups made a decision early on that they were better off going along with the president’s time line, and right now that looks like a serious miscalculation.”

The bill’s fate was sealed Tuesday when Collins, the one Republican who had supported repeal in the Armed Services Committee, announced she was opposed because Reid had decided to restrict amendments to the massive underlying bill.

“For the life of me, I do not understand why the majority leader does not bring this bill to the floor and allow free and open debate and amendments from both sides of the aisle,” she said before the vote. Vice President Joe Biden called the moderate Maine senator in a last-ditch effort to convert her, but Collins refused to reconsider.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also voted against starting debate.

Collins told Senate colleagues she still believes “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed.

“My view is that our armed forces should welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country,” she said. “But let me say that I respect the views of those who disagree with me on this issue, such as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. McCain.

“I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. I support the provisions in this bill – I debated for them. I was the sole Republican on the committee that voted for the Lieberman-Levin language on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ I think it’s the right thing to do,” Collins said. “But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments. That, too, is not fair.”

Snowe hasn’t specifically taken a position on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a spokesman said. She has said the policy is due for review, but she would prefer to see the results of a defense department survey, due Dec. 1, before voting on whether to repeal it.

Groups advocating repeal had spent millions of dollars targeting moderate Democrats and Republicans with advertising, and organized rallies in their home states. They held a final rally starring pop star Lady Gaga on Monday in Maine to try to woo Collins and Snowe.

Some repeal advocates said privately that the Lady Gaga event might have backfired. Collins dismissed it Tuesday: “I look to (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman) Admiral Mike Mullen for my advice.”

White House officials and Senate Democratic leaders said they hoped to revive the issue after the November elections, when they attempt once again to pass the defense authorization bill.

But the bill’s fate after the election is murky, given the uncertainty of the outcome at the polls. If Republicans make major gains, it could be difficult for Democrats to push a contentious issue during an end-of-the-term lame-duck session.

Repeal advocates have pushed back since the ban was put into effect in 1993. They say it unfairly discriminates against gays, who have to hide their sexual identity while serving in uniform, and keeps thousands of potential recruits from enlisting.

But opponents say lifting the ban goes against the wishes of many military leaders and would introduce radical social change to the force at a time when it is focused on two major wars. Critics are especially concerned with potential distractions for troops serving on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq if heterosexual troops would have to live and bathe in close quarters with gays.

Reid announced last week that he would allow three amendments to the defense bill. One would allow Republicans to take a vote on striking “don’t ask” from it. The second would end a senator’s right to place anonymous holds on executive branch nominees, a measure with broad bipartisan support. And the third would grant legal status to young immigrants who attend college or join the military – a measure that could help Reid court Hispanic voters in his tough re-election back home in Nevada.

“This is just transparent, brazen, let’s check special interests bloc politics, 40-something days before an election,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, summing up the feeling of many Republicans.

Gay-rights advocates vowed to keep pressure on the Senate, although some said they were skeptical of victory before the Pentagon concludes its study.

“This issue doesn’t go away,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group providing legal assistance to troops affected by “don’t ask.” “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.”

The Pentagon declined to comment on Tuesday’s vote. “This was an internal procedural matter for the Senate,” spokesman Geoff Morrell said. But Obama’s choice to lead the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he doesn’t think lawmakers should lift “don’t ask.” Morale could suffer, and a change in personnel policy could affect operations in Afghanistan, Amos said.

Several conservative groups heralded Tuesday’s outcome. Penny Nance, head of the Concerned Women of America, said Democrats attempted to “covertly hijack good legislation” with nonmilitary issues, including provisions that would allow for abortions at military bases.


MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler contributed to this story.