After Senate Democrats on Thursday failed, 57-40, to overcome a Republican filibuster of a defense policy bill that would repeal the 1993 ban of openly homosexual men and women from military service, senators from both parties unveiled what may be their 11th-hour bid to end the ban.
They said they will introduce stand-alone legislation that would repeal the gay ban.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. - who had been in talks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the parameters for floor debate on the defense measure - said they were confident they could get 60 votes for the stand-alone bill, which would be identical to the repeal language in the authorization measure and a repeal provision in the House-passed defense bill.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he would co-sponsor the legislation.
"We're not going to give up," Lieberman told reporters after the vote. "We're going to keep fighting until the last possible second in this session."
At the White House, President Obama bemoaned the Senate's failure to move to the defense bill, but urged Congress to act this year on repealing the ban against gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
"While today's vote was disappointing, it must not be the end of our efforts," Obama said in a statement. "I urge the Senate to revisit these important issues during the lame-duck session."
A spokeswoman for Reid said the Democratic leader is "supportive of this effort, but we will need significant Republican support to move forward given the time constraints we are facing in the remainder of the session."
Acknowledging that negotiations with Republicans to get to the 60-vote threshold had fallen apart, Reid abruptly called for Thursday's floor vote to invoke cloture and allow the Senate to debate on the defense bill.
"We've tried every possible way to move forward on this," Reid said, adding that he has "bent over backwards to get the bill done."
Reid and Collins reached agreement Wednesday on allowing debate on 10 Republican and five Democratic amendments to the defense bill. But other procedural issues, including the amount of time allotted to amendments and the scheduling of floor debate-remained unresolved. Republicans have said they want to consider a pending tax package and spending legislation before taking up other measures.
Still, Collins and several other Republicans, including Sens. Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Scott Brown of Massachusetts, have said they support repealing the 17-year-old ban. But with the exception of Collins, all other Republican moderates voted with the rest of the GOP caucus to block the measure.
"I think he had a path forward and he [Reid] chose not to do it," Murkowski said. "He chose to close the door."
Collins, who voted with Republicans in blocking the defense bill in September, said she voted "yes" Thursday because Reid would allow debate on relevant amendments.
"I want to make clear, however, I'm not at all happy with the way this bill was handled," Collins said. "It's puzzling to me because it doesn't accomplish the goal. And there was a clear path forward to victory on this issue and to consideration of this bill."
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has already voted with Republicans several times since taking office last month, was the only Democrat to vote "no."
Manchin, who is concerned about repealing the law during wartime, said he informed Levin days ago of his planned vote.
"I thought, if I'm gonna err, I'm gonna err on the side of the troops and commanders in the field," Manchin said.
He said he would not have voted for cloture even if his was the 60th vote Democrats needed.
Reid cannot bring the defeated defense bill back up because he already filed a motion to reconsider it, a step Senate rules allow only once. Congress has passed the defense authorization bill annually for the last 48 years.