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WASHINGTON — The chances of passing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal this year aren’t dead after Tuesday’s Senate vote tabling the issue.

But they’re almost dead. And it could be years before repeal supporters are this close to success again.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday failed to gather enough votes to allow debate on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal as part of a defense funding bill. Repeal supporters failed to persuade a single Republican in the chamber to back a direct vote on the measure, even though a few had publicly hinted they would support ending the ban on openly gay servicemembers.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said officials hope to bring the issue up for a vote again as soon as possible, but added that realistically that won’t occur until after the November elections.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he’s hopeful that the Senate can still pass the bill after “some of the midterm politics is behind us.” The House passed repeal language in May over objections from conservatives, but the timing of the Senate vote — just six weeks before the election — may have put added urgency in the fight.

“I think our chances of getting this passed in the lame-duck session are better than 50 percent, but we’ve only got one more shot at it this year,” Sarvis said.

Officials at the gay rights advocate Palm Center are more pessimistic.

“In the Senate now, we’re really going to have to bat 1,000 percent to get this through by the end of the year,” said Christopher Neff, deputy executive director of the center. “It’s a tough political environment, and there just isn’t enough time.”

Congress is expected to return to Washington after an October recess and the November elections to pass a host of budget bills and tax cut extensions. But if Republicans make major gains in the elections, congressional leaders could shorten or even skip that lame-duck session in favor of pushing those contentious decisions off to the next Congress.

And if Senate Democrats find the same resistance to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal in December, they could strip the language out of the budget bill in order to get cooperation from Republicans to authorize the defense funding.

Sarvis said one positive item is the Defense Department’s scheduled release of its yearlong study into the possibility of allowing openly gay troops by Dec. 1. Those results could boost repeal efforts if they show minimal opposition, persuading moderate Republicans to back the change.

Still, Tom McClusky, senior vice president of the conservative Family Research Council’s legislative arm, said Tuesday’s vote bodes well for the eventual discarding of the repeal.

“Can I call it a temporary fatal blow?” he said. “It’s certainly not over yet, but it’s certainly a reprieve on the legislative side.”

Gay rights groups note that if conservatives make gains in the House and Senate in the midterm elections — national polls have suggested they will — a full repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unlikely to make more progress than it did this year.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, said her group will continue lobbying lawmakers to oppose repeal but “this is a huge victory that should not be underestimated.” She sees pending court cases as a larger remaining threat.

That might be the most realistic remaining route for short-term repeal, according to Neff. Earlier this month a federal judge in California ruled that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was unconstitutional. A similar case is being heard in Virginia.

Neff said his group is pressuring the White House not to appeal the California ruling, in effect allowing the court to strike down the ban.

White House officials have not indicated whether they’ll appeal the case, but President Barack Obama has stated that he believes the proper way to change the law is through legislation.

In previous “don’t ask, don’t tell” court cases, Department of Justice officials have defended the policy arguing that the federal law must be upheld, even while administration officials work to change it. On Tuesday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House is working “on all fronts” to find a solution to the issue.

Sarvis said he doubts that the White House or repeal opponents will allow a lower-level federal court to have “the final say” on the controversial 17-year-old law, and that the courts process will likely take years to resolve.

A Senate vote, even though it’s a shrinking possibility, remains the best opportunity for repeal, he said.


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