WASHINGTON — Partisan, pre-election squabbling Tuesday in the Senate blocked a vote on repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays in the military and probably delayed at least until after the November election the traditional annual debate on the nation's military policy.
Defense is traditionally one of the rare topics on which bipartisan agreement — or at least vigorous debate — is commonplace. For 48 years, lawmakers have engaged in lengthy debates on defense policy and wound up passing legislation that spells out policies for military pay, strategy and more.
Not this year.
An effort to break the partisan deadlock and begin formal debate on the $725.7 billion defense authorization bill — which includes funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — failed Tuesday when 43 senators — 40 Republicans and three Democrats — voted against cutting off debate over whether to proceed to considering the bill. Democrats who voted no included Arkansas Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who wanted the bill considered immediately, voted no as a procedural maneuver so that he would be able to bring it up again.
Fifty-six senators — 54 Democrats and two independents — voted to proceed with the bill, four short of the number needed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, didn't vote.
The Defense Department declined to comment immediately after the vote, in an effort to be cautious in the face of the controversy surrounding it.
The legislative stalemate came after Republicans pushed to vote on blocking the repeal of the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, while Democrats wanted to include in the defense bill a provision that would make it easier for high school graduates who had entered the country illegally to attain legal residency.
Republican senators charged that both topics were little more than efforts to score political points.
"This is a cynical ploy to try to galvanize and energize their (the Democrats') base," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "In the case of the DREAM Act (immigration bill), the Hispanic vote... and of course, the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' is an appeal to the gay and lesbian base."
Republicans dismissed the growing pressure to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which included recent support from pop diva Lady Gaga.
"She's not in the military," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I want to know from people in the military how they are affected by this (policy)."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., had a different take on Tuesday's vote: "This was a sad day for America."
A Pentagon group is studying the issue of gays serving openly in the military and is scheduled to report later this year. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has said the policy should be overturned.
Democrats said that "don't ask, don't tell" and the immigration measure deserved votes. Further, party leaders charged, Tuesday's vote deprives the public of a thorough defense debate before the November election.
"We should not deny the Senate the opportunity to take up a bill, which is essential for the men and women in the military, because we disagree with some provisions in the bill," Levin said.
The defense authorization bill funds military salaries, installations in the United States and abroad, and the purchase of weapons. It would allocate $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bill reflects some of Defense Secretary Robert Gates' efforts to streamline the budget. It omits an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a change that Gates first proposed as a means to cut the most expensive weapons system ever built. It would cut funding for the C-17 cargo plane, as well. The Obama administration has called both programs wasteful.
The bill also says the Pentagon should be allowed to complete its service-wide survey of the force about "don't ask, don't tell" in December before repealing the law.
Moderate Republicans were seen as casting the key votes Tuesday. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a strong supporter of repealing "don't ask, don't tell," voted with other Republicans.
She worried that Republican senators would be restricted in offering changes to the bill. "I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down the debate and preclude Republican amendments," Collins said. "That... is not fair."