The tortured path to ending the military's ban on openly gay American service members may have hit a dead end Thursday afternoon, when Majority Leader Harry Reid called for a vote on whether the Senate should begin work on the 2011 Defense Department bill that contains a "don't ask, "don't tell" repeal provision.
The vote, not surprisingly, failed 57-40, lacking the 60 votes Reid needed to beat back a promised Republican filibuster of the bill with repeal language.
Voting against Reid's motion Thursday were repeal supporters Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, both Republicans, and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine supported the motion.
Senate Republicans have pledged to block any legislative action until Congress decides what to do about the coming year budget and Bush-era tax cuts that expire at year's end.
Reid's move suggested that he believed negotiations with Collins to bring the bill to the floor after the tax and finance issues had been resolved had hit a major snag - if not collapsed entirely.
Reid's call for a vote, which surprised Collins, added yet another dose of drama to the frantic final days of the lame-duck Congress.
In fact, Collins said she "rushed to the floor" when she heard Reid was calling for a vote.
"I just do not understand why we can't proceed along a path that will bring us to success," Collins said, and "allow us to get 60 votes."
"I thought we were extremely close to getting a reasonable agreement yesterday," she said.
Reid, however, viewed things differently. (Though he did take pains to compliment Collins on her efforts — "she's tried," he said. "I believe she's been doing her very best.")
The Nevada senator told a tale of being a youngster and playing games with an older boy — games, he says, that he kept losing because the senior lad continued to alter the rules.
"I never won a single game," Reid said, "because he kept changing the rules. I was always the loser."
And that, he asserted, is "what's happened on this bill."
Reid, who in previous months has twice unsuccessfully tried to raise the defense bill with repeal language, had been negotiating closely with Collins and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom support repeal.
Collins, however, wanted Reid to guarantee how the Senate would move to the vote, and the leader had as recently as Wednesday appeared to agree with at least two of her demands: that Republicans be allowed to propose up to 10 amendments to the defense bill, and that debate would occur over four days.
Collins said she was "perplexed and frustrated" that an agreement she believed in the works had become a "victim of politics."
Reid, and other Democrats, however, appeared increasingly convinced that even though they have been lining up more Republican support for DADT repeal, the effort would eventually die for lack of time.
"They're clearly trying to run out the clock," Reid said Thursday.
Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he believes that Reid was right to call up the bill.
And though he said he believes that Collins is "committed to repeal, there's a little bit of trying to have it both ways on the floor" by wanting to maintain unity with the GOP caucus, but also supporting the bill.
"This is no longer about process or procedure," Sarvis said. "This is about whether we're going to have a defense bill acted on by the Senate this year."
"After all, if we don't call it, it's not going to pass, either."
Sarvis and other advocates on Capitol Hill are now looking at raising a stand-alone repeal bill during the lame duck session.
"We're down, but we're not out for the year," said Sarvis, who acknowledged that the defense bill would have been the best vehicle to pass repeal.
"But [GOP] Sen. McCain was hell bent on using the minority to prevent the defense bill from coming up, and he has succeeded on three occasions," Sarvis said.
McCain had promised to filibuster any defense bill containing don't ask, don't tell repeal language.
If the Senate fails to pass a defense bill this session, Reid noted, it would be the first time in 48 years that the chamber failed to act on such a bill.
As recently as Wednesday, the White House sounded confident there would be enough votes for repeal.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs from Wednesday's briefing:
“The president — I’m not going to get into a list of who — but the president has through the course of the past several days made calls to Democrats and Republicans on two very important issues: passage of the DREAM Act and repeal of 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.' I think we are — on 'Don’t Ask, Don't Tell' — I think we are very, very close to seeing that repeal happen. We’ve had important endorsements over the past few days that I think in many ways is the result of the process and survey that the Pentagon issued last week. The president is hopeful and encouraging Democrats and Republicans to get behind that."