WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans blocked the likely last chance this year for a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law Thursday, dealing a bitter defeat to gay rights advocates who may have to wait years for another chance.

With the legislative calendar running down, the procedural 57-40 vote in the Senate fell three votes short of the tally needed to advance the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, serving as a rebuke to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, both of whom had urged Congress to repeal the law.

The vote also virtually dooms chances of a legislative repeal of the controversial law for the rest of President Barack Obama’s first term in the White House. House Republicans, who will take over as the majority party next month, have already voiced their opposition to allowing openly gay troops to serve in the ranks, and Senate Republicans will also see their numbers increase next year.

Lawmakers who supported the repeal vowed to reintroduce the effort as a stand-alone bill in coming days, but such a move faces significant political obstacles getting through both chambers in the closing days of the legislative session.

In May, the House passed a repeal of the 17-year-old law as part of the annual defense authorization bill. Under the plan, openly gay troops would have been allowed to serve once the secretary of defense mapped out an implementation plan.

But Senate Republicans filibustered the defense bill in September, stalling the measure from even coming up for formal debate in the Senate. Democrats needed 60 votes to overcome that challenge, but at the time could not get a single Republican to side with their 59-vote caucus.

Currently the Democrats only control 58 votes in the chamber. Just before Thursday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blasted his opponents’ obstructionism as illogical and politically motivated.

“Despite the critical importance for our troops, for our nation, and for justice that we get this bill done, we have not been able to reach an agreement,” he said. “And I regret that it is our troops who will pay the price for our inability to overcome partisan political posturing.”

Reid spent most of Wednesday negotiating with moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to try and sway her and delayed a vote on the issue late Wednesday night after failing to secure her support.

But on Thursday, she said that Reid had not yet negotiated enough on how debate on the defense bill would be conducted and questioned why Reid was rushing the measure to the floor for a vote.

“I thought we were extremely close to a reasonable agreement yesterday,” she said to her colleagues. “There was such a clear path to get this bill done.”

In the end, Collins voted in favor, but without an agreement she could not sway any fellow Republicans to cross the aisle with her. The final 57-40 tally also included a “no” vote from new Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who had expressed concerns about repealing the law.

Earlier in the day, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., publicly pleaded with his Republican colleagues to allow the legislation to move forward despite their objection to the repeal effort.

“A failure by the Senate to act on this bill could have serious ramifications for the success or failure of ongoing military operations around the world,” he said. “We should not deny the Senate the opportunity to vote on this [defense budget] bill, which is so critical to the men and women of the military, because some members disagree with provisions of the bill.”

Even as the vote took place on the Senate floor, Collins and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., continued their negotiations, and both appeared visibly frustrated with the result.

Members of the pro-repeal group OutServe issued a statement immediately following the vote blasting the result.

“Today’s vote is heartbreaking and demoralizing,” the release said. “No words can describe how it felt to watch our U.S. senators uphold discrimination and perpetuate the deceit and compromised integrity that consistently result under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

Last week, the Pentagon released its 9-month-long study into “don’t ask, don’t’ tell,” concluding that it could be repealed with little or no effect on military readiness and effectiveness.

Fewer than a third of troops surveyed for the report said that a repeal would have a negative effect on their ability to “get the job done,” although that number rose to almost two-thirds among certain combat units.

Gates and Mullen used the report to lobby the Senate last week to push ahead with the repeal measure. Mullen called the issue one of integrity and fairness.

“The military serves all the people of this country, no matter who they are or what they believe,” he said. “And every one of those people, should they be fit and able, ought to be given the opportunity to defend it.”

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