WASHINGTON — Senate lawmakers may be just hours away from advancing a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law — or just hours from a bitter defeat for gay rights advocates who may have to wait years for another chance.

On Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he’d likely bring the annual defense authorization bill — with the repeal language attached — before the full chamber later Thursday.

In May, the House passed the measure, which would dump the policy after the secretary of defense lays out an implementation plan in the coming months. But Senate Republicans filibustered the measure in September, and the repeal has remained stalled there since.

Democrats need 60 votes to overcome that filibuster, but currently only control 58 votes in the chamber. Reid spent most of Wednesday negotiating with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to try and sway her, but delayed a vote on the issue late Wednesday night after failing to secure her support.

On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., publicly pleaded to 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.”

Levin acknowledged that even if able the Senate is able to pass the authorization bill in the next few days, the measure still faces “a possibly insurmountable challenge” of going back to the House to reconcile differences between the chambers before the president could sign it into law.

In the last decade, that process has averaged 75 days. Only 24 days remain in this legislative session.

“If we don’t proceed on this bill this week … I don’t believe there will be enough time to hammer out the final bill before the end of the session,” he said.

Last week, the Pentagon released its study into the 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t’ tell” law, concluding that it could be repealed with little or no effect on military readiness and effectiveness.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.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike 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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