Senate Democrats failed Tuesday to get the 60 votes needed to proceed to the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill, effectively shelving until after the midterm elections debate on hot-button political issues such as immigration and the repeal of the 1993 law banning gays from serving openly in the military.
The Senate voted 56-43 on a cloture motion offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Democrats needed support from their entire caucus and at least one Republican to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the defense bill.
But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was considered by Democrats as their best bet for a "yes" vote, said this morning she feared Senate leaders would not allow adequate time for a wide range of amendments to be debated on the bill.
Before the vote, Collins said she would cast her "no" vote to protect minority rights, despite her support for the provisions in the bill.
Republicans have said they are concerned that debate on the bill would be limited to three amendments: the DREAM Act, a measure that would create a path to citizenship for young adult illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as minors; language ending the Senate's practice of secret holds; and a GOP amendment striking language in the bill that would repeal the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays.
Under the repeal provision in the bill, the ban on avowed homosexuals would not be lifted until after the Pentagon completes its review of the likely impact and certifies that it would not hurt morale or unit cohesion.
But Democrats have countered that more amendments could be offered after those three are considered.
"I don't think Reid has ruled that out," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said earlier Tuesday. Beyond the first three amendments, Reid "would be open to negotiation for unanimous consent requests" for other amendments, Durbin added.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., argued that Democrats can't work out time agreements on amendments before the bill comes to the floor because they don't know how many amendments will be offered. So far, Levin estimated there were only eight amendments for the bill, which usually attracts hundreds.
"I don't know a practical way to work out an agreement" before debate on the bill begins, he said.
Before the cloture vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sought unanimous consent for a process in which the Senate would take up 20 amendments before considering the Democrats' proposal to attach the DREAM Act. Reid objected, saying the proposal was another GOP attempt to delay final action on the defense bill.
Levin said he hopes the bill will come up later this year, stressing that the authorization measure has passed every year since the early 1960s.
"It would be unthinkable that we not have a defense authorization bill," Levin said.