Reporting from Washington — Chances appear increasingly remote that Congress will lift the military's ban on openly gay service members this year, even though a Pentagon report is unlikely to conclude that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would disrupt the armed forces.
Lawmakers return next week to a lame-duck session with an agenda crowded with spending and tax issues, and indications are that the measure to lift the ban will be pushed further down the to-do list.
Republicans opposed to the repeal know that they simply need to wait until the new session of Congress, which begins in January. At that point, with the GOP in control of the House and wielding some leverage in the Senate, there will be little chance of repeal.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this week reiterated the Obama administration's call for repeal, the latest indication that the Pentagon report, due Dec. 1, would not pose an obstacle to ending the ban on gays.
A number of senators had cited the Pentagon report as a reason for putting off a decision, saying they wanted the study's assurances that repeal would not jeopardize military readiness. But some have continued to oppose repeal, even though Pentagon officials have emphasized that the study would represent a road map for how to change the policy.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, led a GOP filibuster against repeal in September. In recent days, McCain has been in talks with the committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), about the defense authorization bill, which contains the repeal.
"Among other concerns, the senator remains opposed to the inclusion of the provision repealing the 'don't ask, don't tell' law," said Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for McCain.
Levin's office would confirm only that talks were continuing on the bill, not whether stripping the repeal provision was under consideration. If the repeal is removed from the bill, which routinely attracts wide bipartisan support, it is less likely to pass.
Levin also is being pressed by his own flank. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) released a letter this week pushing for an end to the ban.
Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates ending the ban, said he was hopeful Senate leaders would find another piece of "must-pass" legislation to which the repeal could be attached if McCain succeeds in splitting it from the defense authorization bill.
"The key players are still trying to find the best vehicle to make it happen," Sarvis said.
Adding to pressure on Senate Democrats is the impending shift in control of the House from Democrats to Republicans. The House passed a repeal measure in May, but that provision will die if the Senate fails to act by the end of the congressional session.
Before the Pentagon study is sent to Gates, the chiefs of each of the four military services will meet with him and with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen. The Washington Post reported this week that most military personnel did not oppose a change in policy.
Mullen, speaking Wednesday at UCLA, said it would be better for Congress than the courts to repeal the law. In September, a California judge overturned the ban, holding it unconstitutional. But her ruling has been stayed while an appeal is heard by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
All four military service chiefs have expressed varying degrees of concern about repeal. Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said this week that he was concerned about a possible loss of unit cohesion and combat readiness if the ban was overturned.
"There's risk involved. …This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness," Amos told reporters in San Diego.