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WASHINGTON — The Senate will hold hearings on the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law sometime this fall, another step forward for rights groups seeking to overturn the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military.

The hearings would be the first in the chamber since 1993, and come after months of inaction on the issue despite public commitments from both President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to drop the law.

A spokesman for Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said that he has committed to holding at least one hearing this fall on the issue, but no other decisions have been made.

But officials from the Human Rights Council called the Senate promise of a hearing an important step forward no matter the format.

“The Pentagon has argued that this policy is working, and we have a lot of evidence to show [the senators] that it’s not,” said David Stacy, senior policy advocate for the council. “So a congressional hearing is a great opportunity for that educational process.”

Last month, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., promised a “don’t ask” hearing sometime this year, but only after House Democrats agreed not to start a floor fight by amending a defense budget bill to include the issue.

The House held a hearing last summer on the ban, the only congressional hearing on the issue in the last 16 years. Supporters of the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the ranks blasted that event as a publicity stunt, designed to generate sympathy for gay-rights groups.

As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to dump “don’t ask,” but he has resisted pressure from advocacy groups and members of the House to sign an executive order halting prosecution of gays and lesbians under the law.

White House officials have argued that since the law originated in Congress, lawmakers must take the first steps to change the rules. Meanwhile, Senate leaders have said they wouldn’t move forward on passing new legislation without clear direction from the president.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly stated that he’ll direct military officials to follow whatever Congress and the president decide. In a press conference last week, he reiterated that implementing any such change “must be deliberate and careful.”

“This is not something that should be done abruptly, because we have a force under great stress in two wars,” he said. “To try and do something abruptly would be a real concern.”

But Iraq war veteran Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., lead sponsor of a House bill to overturn “don’t ask,” on Monday launched a multi-city tour to build support for an immediate move on the issue, with both gay and straight veterans speaking at town hall meetings over the next two months.

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