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Congressional calendar endangers repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'

After the House voted to repeal the policy, the Senate took on the issue and also voted to lift the 17-year-old ban on gays in the military.

"Mr. Secretary," McCain said, "I speak from personal experience."

Dueling activists

While gay advocacy organizations and a broad network of policy groups have united behind repeal, conservative efforts to oppose lifting the ban have largely centered on a single activist, Elaine Donnelly. She has studied military personnel issues since the 1980s and founded the Center for Military Readiness, working from her home in Livonia, Mich.

Donnelly believes, and many retired officers and families of current service members agree, that allowing gays to serve openly would degrade the quality of the service. "It would be a strong disincentive for families considering military service for their sons and daughters," Donnelly said.

Donnelly and a veteran Republican operative she hired, Tommy Sears, orchestrated the right's opposition. She distributed exhaustive memos to Pentagon officials, lawmakers and reporters detailing her legal arguments against repeal, chiefly that there is no constitutional right to serve in the military and thus gays should adhere to the existing policy.

She lamented in a recent interview that traditionally conservative media, including commentators Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, have not zeroed in on the debate.

For years, Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," but their efforts never got far. "There was a bill, but there was no real movement," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said.

This time, though, there were faces to help build a movement. Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Army infantry officer who served in Iraq a few years ago, came out as a gay man on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" in March 2009. He was later discharged, even as he became a leading advocate for repeal.

Choi and several other gay veterans have lobbied lawmakers. Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraq war veteran, and others also led the renewed push for repeal.

After meeting with Choi, Gillibrand said she was so moved that she quietly talked to her colleagues about repealing "don't ask, don't tell." "Surprisingly, I got much more support than I would've thought," she said.

The question now is whether there's enough time left to do anything about it.

"The one problem we've got here is the schedule," Levin said. "We have very little time left."

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