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Defense Bill Stalls on Procedural Vote, Senate Blocks 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Repeal

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, talks about the military "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010. (AP)

A massive defense spending bill that includes a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law banning gays from serving openly in the military stalled Tuesday after failing to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate. 

Senate Democrats were unable to corral the 60 votes necessary to overcome Republican objections blocking the package from advancing to the floor. The bill failed in a 56-43 vote. 

The vote makes it all the less likely that Congress will take any substantive action on "don't ask, don't tell" or the broader defense package before adjourning for the November midterm elections. 

The routine bill authorizing $726 billion in defense spending had turned into a political football in recent days as lawmakers feuded over add-ons that dealt with cultural hot buttons ranging from immigration to abortion to gays in the military. 

The vote Tuesday was a blow to gay rights advocates who saw the defense authorization bill as the only vehicle through which to repeal the law before the election. 

Democrats had also intended to offer the DREAM Act, a proposal giving young illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military a path to citizenship, as an amendment -- a move that injected a heightened level of controversy into the debate over the past week. Plus the bill included a measure to repeal a longstanding ban on abortions at U.S. military hospitals overseas. 

All those proposals along with the budget blueprint for the Defense Department are temporarily off the table in the wake of Tuesday's vote. It marks the first time in 48 years that Congress will not have passed a defense authorization bill before heading out of town -- a bill that sets the policy for the Defense Department that is then funded by a separate, subsequent bill called the defense appropriations. 

A failure to pass the authorization and appropriations bills does not mean Pentagon spending stops. Congress, which so far has not passed any of the 12 annual spending bills, can pass what is known as a continuing resolution to keep things running past the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. But this means the Pentagon could start the new year working off the old $636 billion budget, complete with priorities Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to lose. 

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins was seen as a key 60th vote because she has voiced support for repealing "don't ask, don't tell." But she ended up opposing the bill out of concern that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid limited debate and did not give her colleagues opportunities to offer amendments. 

Accusations flew after the vote. The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP organization, accused Reid of refusing to compromise. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the Republican filibuster leaves gay members of the military "forced to lie about who they are." 

Top military officials in the Obama administration have spoken out in favor of the repeal but also urged Congress to wait until an internal Pentagon review is finished. 

On the Democratic side, Arkansas Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor voted against the defense bill Tuesday. Reid also voted against the bill for procedural reasons. 

Democrats pledged to find another way to bring back the DREAM Act. Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he would do "everything in my power" to pass it. 

"I want everyone within the sound of my voice to hear -- we're going to vote on the DREAM Act," he said.