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WASHINGTON — Gay rights groups are hoping for another huge step forward next week in their efforts to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, with key moves aimed at dumping the ban possible in both chambers of Congress.

Such action would contrast with Pentagon officials’ public requests for patience on the issue, as the Defense Department collects servicemembers’ reactions and fears about a change in the 17-year-old ban on openly gay servicemembers. That review is expected to wrap up by the end of the year, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he opposes any legislative moves before then.

But on Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told The Hill newspaper that “I don’t have any doubt that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will be a memory by the end of this year,” dismissing Gates’ objections.

The comments came at the same time Democratic leaders in the House Armed Services Committee resisted efforts to include a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ repeal in their first draft of the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act. Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said yesterday that he instead “supports Adm. [Mike] Mullen and Gates’ request for more time to study this issue.”

But repeal supporters in the House could still bring up the issue during full chamber debate on the issue next week, a move gay rights groups are actively lobbying for. Currently Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Patrick Murphy’s bill for a repeal has 192 co-sponsors, and officials in his office say several other lawmakers have promised to back the measure if it comes up for a vote.

If attached to the authorization bill, a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal could put Skelton and conservative Democrats in the awkward position of either voting against troop funding or for repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” during what is expected to be a contentious election cycle.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee will draft their version of the authorization act next week, and committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has long advocated using the budget bill as a vehicle for repeal.

Committee officials won’t unveil their plans, but gay rights groups anticipate it will be included after a week of internal committee debate.

“We are only a few days away from this historic vote,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “The objective is still to find a viable legislative repeal solution that meets the requirements of the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The only major difference on the table is the repeal timeline and process.”

Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan and is now senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has publicly backed a repeal and called Pelosi’s year-end goal a realistic legislative target. But he said attaching the measure to the authorization bill isn’t necessarily critical to getting that done.

“The fact that the speaker made those comments make me believe she’ll be pushing for a vote next week, but these [budget] bills likely won’t be passed before the election in November,” he said. “There is still plenty of time, and there are still plenty of legislative vehicles for this.”

Opponents of a repeal are still hoping to stall the effort, asserting that lawmakers haven’t fully researched the impact on operations and morale of allowing gay troops to serve openly alongside heterosexual servicemembers.

In a letters Thursday to Senate Republicans and the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, the International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers urged opposition to any repeal, saying any such move will have “a destructive effect” on services.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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