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WASHINGTON — For months, the fate of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal has rested in the hands of a small group of senators who’ve said they support openly gay troops but haven’t voted that way.

Now, after Wednesday’s House vote to repeal the law, supporters and opponents are left exactly where they’ve been for the last six months: waiting to see whether that small group will stand pat or help strike down the controversial 17-year ban.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised a vote on the stand-alone repeal bill in coming days, although other legislative priorities could bump it from the schedule.

Earlier this month, Republican opponents of a repeal blocked the measure — then attached to the annual defense authorization bill — from coming up for a vote in the chamber. Democrats needed 60 votes to overcome the filibuster threat, but managed only 57 earlier this month.

Repeal advocate Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Wednesday that at least 61 senators have publicly backed a repeal, and he’s confident the measure will pass this time.

But that calculation includes several Republican senators who, so far, have not backed up their public statements of support.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, on Wednesday released a statement saying she supports repeal, citing the Pentagon report released earlier this month predicting a repeal would have minimal impact on military operations and morale.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., have issued similar statements of support in recent weeks. But all three of those lawmakers voted against allowing the previous bill to go through, and none has promised to support the stand-alone “don’t ask, don’t tell” bill.

The only Republican to switch sides has been Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who co-sponsored the latest repeal legislation with Leiberman.

Collins nearly sided with Democrats on the issue in September, and at the time would have provided the deciding vote allowing the repeal efforts to move forward. But she said concerns over how the defense bill amendment process was structured forced her to side with her Republican colleagues.

All 58 members of the Senate Democratic caucus have said they’ll back the repeal effort except for new West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has said he has not served long enough in office to know his constituents’ views on the issue.

Gay rights advocates said they’re hopeful that, despite past defeats, the Republican swing votes will aid their cause on this last-gasp attempt to pass a repeal before the legislative session ends next month.

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed that optimism following the House vote, urging the Senate to pass the repeal as soon as possible. Gates said a legislative repeal would allow the department “to carefully and responsibly manage a change in this policy instead of risking an abrupt change resulting from a decision in the courts.”

If the repeal effort fails again, those existing court challenges will become the most likely opportunity for repeal advocates and the biggest threat to opponents.

Obama and Gates could raise the issue with Congress again next session, but House Republican leadership, who will take control of the chamber, have opposed the idea. Without a dramatic turn-around in their stance, it could be years before a legislative repeal effort has a credible chance of success.

Earlier this year, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was suspended for nearly 48 hours after a federal court declared it unconstitutional. An appeals court stayed that order, and is expected to hear arguments on that case in the spring.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group which brought the lawsuit, said officials there would prefer a legislative appeal, but will keep fighting in the courts to abolish the law if that becomes their only realistic option.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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