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Senate Republicans today dealt a major setback to those pushing for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's the 17-year-old policy that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. Republicans closed ranks to block consideration of a defense bill that calls for the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
And as NPR's David Welna reports, the upcoming midterm elections weighed heavily on the debate.
DAVID WELNA: It was clear from the moment the Senate session began today that Republicans were confident they could keep the defense authorization bill, and its provision for a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, from even being brought up. GOP leader Mitch McConnell portrayed the Democrats' efforts to move to the wartime defense bill as simply a ploy to pander to potential voters.
Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Democrats have called up this bill not to have a vote on it or to consider amendments to help our troops in the field, but to put on a show, to use it as an opportunity to cast votes for things Americans either don't want, or aren't interested in seeing attached to a bill thats supposed to be about defense.
WELNA: The most outspoken opponent of bringing up the defense bill was the top Republican on the committee that approved it last May - Arizona's John McCain. He argued that a Pentagon study, due December 1st, on the impact of a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be finished before Congress acts.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Why are we now trying to jam this thing through without the survey being completed, and without a proper assessment of its impact? So I urge members not to vote in favor of bringing the bill to the floor at this time so the troops can be heard from.
WELNA: With 59 senators in the Democratic caucus, they might have needed just one Republican for the 60 votes required to break the GOP filibuster. Many were hoping that Republican would be Maine's Susan Collins. She was the only member of her party to vote for the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal in committee. But instead, she voted to sustain the filibuster, as did both Democratic senators from Arkansas - making the final tally 56 to 43. Before casting her vote, Collins said she found herself on the horns of a dilemma.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I think we should welcome the service of these individuals, who are willing and capable of serving their country, but I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down the debate and preclude Republican amendments. That, too, is not fair.
WELNA: Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin responded that Republicans were complaining about not having amendments on a bill that they would not even allow to be considered. And he said Republicans would, indeed, be allowed to offer amendments if the bill ever came up.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I agree with the senator from Maine that it is important that this assurance be there. It is there. It was there.
WELNA: Indeed, Majority Leader Harry Reid did give such assurance to Senate Republicans just a few days ago, on the Senate floor.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): There are many other important matters that colleagues on both sides of the aisle wish to address. I'm willing to work with Senate Republicans on a process that would permit the Senate to consider these matters, and complete this bill as soon as possible, which likely will be after the recess.
WELNA: As it stands now, the entire defense bill will likely be on hold until after the recess for the midterm elections. Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with the Democrats, said he was certain such an important bill for national defense, which Congress has passed every year for 48 years, would eventually be considered in a lame-duck session. And he predicted opponents of its provision on Don't Ask, Don't Tell would ultimately fail in their bid to remove it from the bill.
Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): There will come a day before the end of this year when there will be a motion to strike the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I don't think the opponents of Don't Ask, Don't Tell have the votes to accomplish that.
WELNA: But today, those opponents won a key election season victory.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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