By Ed O'Keefe and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 11, 2010; A02
Trying to salvage one of the year's most tumultuous legislative endeavors, senators on Friday introduced a new bill, with bipartisan support, that would end the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Initiated by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) a day after supporters of repeal saw their efforts defeated for the second time this year, the new bill uses the same language that had been tucked into the defense authorization measure.
The defense bill failed in a procedural vote on Thursday, which frustrated supporters who said the defeat was the result of bad timing rather than a lack of votes. They sharply criticized Majority Leader Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) - who is racing through a packed legislative agenda as the congressional clock winds down - for moving prematurely. A similar attempt failed in September.
Friday's bill is a Hail Mary. Several Democratic senators are cosponsoring the new measure, and while Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) - key potential GOP votes - remain supportive of ending the ban, they are not expected to cosponsor it, according to Senate aides. The aides asked their names be withheld because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Lieberman and Collins hatched their plans during Thursday's defense bill vote, concluding that a standalone measure would succeed if introduced after senators vote on tax cut legislation.
Reid has promised Lieberman that he will use his power as majority leader - which allows him to bypass the committee process - and introduce the bill for a vote, aides said.
President Obama wants to explore all legislative options to overturn the ban during the lame-duck session, White House aides said Friday. His campaign operation e-mailed supporters asking them to lobby Republicans to vote for the new bill.
Despite Obama and Reid's support - and assurances from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the House will vote on the bill - it remains unclear when or how it will be considered.
Democratic Senate aides suggested a Senate vote could come late Tuesday or Wednesday, after senators vote to proceed with tax cut legislation on Monday. But senators also have to vote on a trillion-dollar government spending bill and may also consider the new START Treaty - a bill White House aides privately concede holds more priority.
Gay rights activists are scrambling. About 150 people rallied Friday on Capitol Hill in support of ending the ban. "There's no doubt that this process is complex, but this can get done," said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign.
But Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, and a leading critic of ending the ban, called Thursday's failed vote "a great victory for our military."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen want Congress to end the ban with legislation so the Pentagon can phase it out in an orderly fashion.
On a flight from stops in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Gates said he was "disappointed" by Thursday's Senate vote, adding that he hoped they would try again before adjourning.
"If they are unable to do that," he told reporters traveling with him, "my greatest worry will be that then we're at the mercy of the courts and all of the lack of predictability that that entails."
Gates noted that one of several federal lawsuits challenging the ban could result in it being struck down, but only in a large swath of western states under the jurisdiction of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
If that happens, he said, the military would be required to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in some parts of the country, but not in others. "Again, the potential for extraordinary confusion," he said.