WASHINGTON —The Senate voted Tuesday against taking up a major military bill containing a provision that would allow the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, disappointing advocates of allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the armed forces but leaving open the likelihood of another vote this year.
Democrats thought this was their best chance to undo the 17-year-old measure after President Barack Obama had won the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military leaders to get rid of it.
But Republicans objected that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had attached several politically motivated proposals to the measure ahead of the fall elections.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who led the charge against repeal, called Reid's plan a "blatant and cynical" political ploy aimed at galvanizing Democratic voters for the midterm elections.
The high-profile failure left some advocates of repeal feeling burned and blaming the White House and congressional Democrats for not acting sooner.
"The Democrats have been against 'don't ask, don't tell' for more than a decade and why we allowed this law to remain in effect for another two years is beyond me," said Richard Soccarides, a former gay rights adviser to President Bill Clinton. "The Washington-based gay rights groups made a decision early on that they were better off going along with the president's time line and that right now that looks like a serious miscalculation."
The House has already approved legislation that would allow the Pentagon to rescind the policy, while a legal fight is advancing in the federal courts.
The outcome, at a time when Congress is increasingly paralyzed by the partisan fury of the midterm elections, was more a result of a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over legislative process than a straightforward referendum on whether to allow gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers to serve openly.
One Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, said she voted to block the bill for procedural reasons despite supporting the provision to allow repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Other Republicans have suggested they might be open to supporting the change later in the year, once the military has finished the study of the likely effects of the proposed policy shift.
The vote was 56-43, with Democrats falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Both Arkansas Democrats, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, sided with all 40 Republicans present in opposing debate. Reid switched his vote to no at the last minute, a procedural maneuver that allowed him to call for a revote.
Supporters of gay rights said they were deeply disappointed by the vote.
Lawmakers in favor of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" made emotional appeals on the Senate floor.
"It ought to go," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn. "It's un-American. It's inconsistent with our best values of equal opportunity, who can get the job done, not what your private life is about."
Lieberman and others said they would continue the fight.
Congress has approved the annual Pentagon bill for 48 consecutive years, and it seems likely that the measure will be brought up again after the election in the relatively calmer — if somewhat unpredictable — atmosphere of a lame-duck session.
The repeal language might be easier to pass in the Senate after Dec. 1, when a Pentagon study on the effects of ending the policy is due. McCain, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has said it would be premature to vote before the results of that study were known.
As it stands, the Senate measure would not allow repeal of the policy until after the study was completed and Obama and top military commanders certified that ending "don't ask, don't tell" would not harm morale or impede the readiness of troops.
Democrats immediately sought to blame Republicans for obstructing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
The language allowing the end of "don't ask, don't tell" was approved last spring by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and at the time won the support of one Republican, Collins.
In addition, at least one Democrat who opposed the repeal language, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, had said he would not vote against the overall bill simply to maintain the "don't ask don't tell" policy. Webb voted Tuesday to move the bill forward.
Although the Obama administration strongly supports repealing the policy, the White House has already threatened to veto the House version of the military bill over several provisions it opposes, including authorization of $485 million for construction of an extra engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter. The administration believes that the extra engine is wasteful.
But substantive policy disagreements were a secondary consideration Tuesday in the skirmishing on the Senate floor. Collins criticized Reid for politicizing the military measure.
"There are many controversial issues in this bill," Collins said in a floor speech. "They deserve to have a civil, fair and open debate on the Senate floor, and that is why I am so disappointed that rather than allowing full and open debate and the opportunity for amendments from both sides of the aisle, the majority leader apparently intends to shut down the debate and exclude Republicans from offering a number of amendments."
With time running short before lawmakers leave Washington to turn their full attention to the fall campaign, Senate Democrats said they planned to hold another vote on a bill to toughen disclosure requirements on campaign spending by corporations and other private groups.
The Democrats have proposed a bill to respond to a recent Supreme Court ruling that allows mostly unfettered campaign spending by corporations. Republicans blocked the bill in July and are expected to do so again.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report