WASHINGTON — Gay rights groups suffered a significant defeat Tuesday in their efforts to overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with Senate Democrats failing to get enough support to move ahead debate on legislation reversing the law.

Democrats needed 60 votes to advance the fiscal 2011 Defense Authorization Bill — which included a plan to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law by next spring — but could not muster a single Republican supporter for the legislative maneuver.

The result is a murky future for the 17-year-old ban on openly gay servicemembers. Senate leaders vowed to bring up the issue again as soon as possible, but said that likely wouldn’t be until after the October legislative break and the November midterm elections.

"I hope it's something we can bring up in the lame duck session with different results, but right now it's too early to tell," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "But it's difficult to see what the path ahead will be."

Officials at the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said leaving the vote for the Senate’s lame-duck session would likely kill the effort for now, since Republican opponents anticipating election gains will be loath to allow any controversial items to pass before a new Congress is seated.

“Today’s vote is a failure of leadership on the part of those who have been duly elected to serve this nation and to put the best interests of the country ahead of partisan politics,” said Alexander Nicholson, founder and Executive Director of Servicemembers United. “The Senate could learn a good lesson from those who serve in uniform and who stand to benefit from proceeding to debate on this bill - serving this country means putting politics aside and getting the job done. It is simply inexcusable that this vote failed today.”

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the attempt to force through the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal was nothing but a blatant attempt by Senate Democrats to rally liberals and gay rights groups before the November elections.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said he believed a majority of the Senate would support a direct up-or-down vote on repealing the controversial law, which bars homosexuals from serving openly in the military. The procedural block, he said, was nothing more than opponents of the repeal holding hostage “crucial military benefits and family programs” included in the wider bill.

Democrats and gay rights activists had spent days trying to persuade several moderate Republicans to cross party lines, even hosting a rally featuring Lady Gaga in Maine to encourage the state’s Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, to break ranks with their party.

On Tuesday, Collins said she would support a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal but would not vote for debate to proceed on the legislation because of restrictions being placed on the process by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments,” she said in a floor speech before the vote. “Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks.”

Last week, Reid announced that Republicans would be able to offer only a single amendment on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” provision of the legislation, and put a similar limit on debate over immigration changes being inserted into the bill. But Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., accused Republicans of playing politics with the defense budget bill, saying that Democrats had not shut down any avenues of debate, only set general parameters because of the tight timeline for debate. He said Reid would work with Republicans to settle the squabble and bring up the procedural vote again as quickly as possible.

Durbin said the delay could jeopardize Congress’s chances of confirming the authorization bill, which it hasn’t failed to pass since 1952. Both chambers are expected to pass a continuing resolution before recess that will allow the Defense Department to continue operations at fiscal 2010 levels into the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Opponents of repeal noted that the Senate will be able to pass the authorization bill easily in the lame-duck session if Democrats remove controversial items like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal from the measure. McCain said servicemembers and their families deserve a budget bill not bogged down by controversial “social experimentation.”

Gay rights groups said the open-ended delay in considering the issue is a bitter contrast to the seeming inevitability of a repeal they celebrated in May, when the full House and the Senate Armed Services Committee approved language repealing the 1993 law.

Those votes came after introduction of a carefully crafted plan by President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which would authorize a repeal after the Pentagon and White House certify the results of an ongoing study into the effects of allowing openly gay troops in the ranks.

That study is expected to be completed in December. The repeal would go into effect two months after certification of the study.

Mike Almy, an Army major discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law after 13 years of military service, called Tuesday’s developments disheartening.

“I don’t know how much of this is politics, but it’s disappointing regardless,” he said. “We just had the victory in the House, we just had several court rulings against the law. We’re so close.”

Members of the conservative Family Research Council, which has lobbied against the repeal, on Monday said that any vote in favor of allowing debate would be considered a vote in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Council President Tony Perkins said a repeal would undermine military readiness by forcing troops with religious objections to homosexuality to share workspace, showers and living quarters with gays.

The Senate is scheduled to break for pre-election recess by Oct. 8.

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