Updated at 1:30p.m. on December 8.
The fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill that includes a provision repealing the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy banning openly homosexual men and women from serving in the military is poised for a defeat in a cloture vote later today, according to several Senate aides.
Such an outcome would be a blow for liberal activists supporting the law's repeal and another setback for Senate Democrats who have been reeling from the deal President Obama cut with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this morning that he will likely set up a vote on a motion to reconsider the bill “this evening.” That move alarmed supporters of repealing the 17-year-old gay ban because, it means Republican moderates such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts , Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, who might otherwise back both repeal and cloture on the defense bill will likely join a GOP filibuster against it. Republicans have said they will not back the bill until a deal on expiring Bush-era tax cuts is complete and a long-term federal funding extension is passed.
“Our concern right now is that that if the defense authorization bill comes up today, this would result in it being defeating and repeal being defeated, because Republicans who are favorably disposed to repeal and to defense authorization would oppose it,” said a Senate Democratic aide.
That aide and another Democratic staffer familiar with talks over the bill said defeat of the measure may pave the way for quick action on a “stripped down,” defense authorization bill without the repeal of the 1993 law on gays in the military.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters today that he "can only hope" that the Senate can get the 60 votes to consider the bill. "We've worked awfully hard to build support," he said.
Levin, who said last week he would consider moving a defense authorization bill without the repeal language, would not comment on that today, saying he does not want to weaken the argument for keeping the language in the bill. Levin has been one of the most vocal supporters of repealing the gay ban.
He also said he has offered Reid a "formulation" on a deal for how floor debate should be handled, but he would not provide details.
Considering the bill would still need to go to a conference with the House to come up with a final version, Levin said the Senate bill would need to move this week.
The faltering of the defense measure comes despite growing Senate support for repealing the law on the merits. Sen. Mark Pyror, D-Ark., said today he would back repeal and cloture on the defense bill, and Brown announced last week he would support repeal if Reid allows ample time to take up amendments to the defense bill -- the same conditional support Collins has expressed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said today that allowing only a few amendments is "short-changing" debate on a defense bill that typically consumes more than a week of Senate debate. Graham said he believes Reid would allow somewhere around seven amendments, which he said "is not even close" to what he thinks is necessary.
In his announcement from the Senate floor, Reid said that when the cloture vote comes up, he plans to reveal how much time he will allow for amendments to the defense bill. This suggested that the amendment process was still the subject of negotiations with key Republicans.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, ID-Conn., who has been involved in negotiations between Reid and Republican senators, said he has pleaded with Reid to not bring up the measure until there is a deal on the amendment process.
“If we do [negotiate a process on floor debate], we’ve got the votes,” Lieberman said. Failing to get 60 votes would be a “real body blow” to the effort to get the bill, including the “don’t ask don’t tell” repeal language, done this year.
Collins does not believe Reid’s offers on floor debate have been adequate, but Lieberman, who has described Collins as "proactive,” said talks are continuing.
“She took it [Reid’s floor strategy] in good faith and I think she’s made some counter-suggestions, and now Sen. Reid is looking at those,” Lieberman said. “It would be a terrible shame when you’ve got the votes for the basic bill and repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ and somehow it fails because we didn’t try to negotiate a process to take it up.”
Lieberman has appealed to Reid to keep the Senate in session during the next two weekends and to work the week before Christmas instead of adjourning Dec. 17, as Reid now plans.
The Senate is main obstacle to moving the measure. A defense bill with identical repeal language has already passed the House.