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US Senate to hold key test vote on gay ban

President Barack Obama's historic drive to repeal the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" ban on gays serving openly in the US military faced a critical test vote in the US Senate today.

world Updated: Dec 18, 2010 11:31 IST

President Barack Obama's historic drive to repeal the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" ban on gays serving openly in the US military faced a critical test vote in the US Senate on Saturday.

Supporters who want to scrap the prohibition, enacted in 1993, say they will lose their best chance in years when a new US Congress musters in January with Republicans who largely oppose repeal in charge of the House.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid played it coy on Friday when asked about optimism among backers of the legislation that they will peel off enough Republicans to rally the 60 lawmakers needed in the 100 seat chamber.

"Hope so," he told reporters when asked whether the measure would draw enough support to close off debate and lead to a vote on final passage.

If successful, that second vote would send the measure to Obama to sign into law, fulfilling a 2008 White House campaign promise and ushering in perhaps the biggest sea change in the US military since racial integration began in 1948.

In recent weeks the measure has drawn enough tentative Republican support to clear Saturday's vote, but increasingly nasty political infighting in the year-end session placed the outcome in doubt.

The House of Representatives approved the bill Wednesday by a 250-175 margin that reflected broad US public support for doing away with the rule, which requires gays to keep quiet about their sexual orientation or face dismissal.

Obama responded in a statement that repeal of the ban was "the right thing to do" to ensure all those who risk their lives for their country are "treated fairly and equally."

The legislation envisions lifting the ban only after the president, the secretary of defense, and the top US uniformed officer certify that doing so can be done without harming military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.

The Pentagon issued a study this month that found a solid majority of troops were not bothered by the prospect of lifting the ban and that the military could implement the change without a major disruption or upheaval.

The repeal effort enjoys broad support from the US public, as well as from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the top US uniformed officer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen.

Gates has warned that, absent congressional action, US courts may weigh in and force an end to the policy before the Pentagon is fully prepared to do so.

In the years since the ban was enacted as a compromise to deal with the tricky issue of gays in the military, some 13,000 US troops have been ousted, and critics have pointed out that many were trained at great expense, like fighter pilots, or had skills which the US military is starved of, such as Arabic translators.

But opponents of the legislation have cited testimony from US military service chiefs who warned against a quick repeal, citing concerns about unit cohesion.

General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps and an opponent of lifting the ban, warned Tuesday that ending the ban could jeopardize the lives of Marines in combat by undermining closely knit units.

"I don't want to lose any Marines to distraction. I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda (hospital) with no legs," he told reporters this week.

The Saturday procedural ballot on repeal will occur after the Senate holds a vote on whether to end debate on an immigration bill, which is not expected to net the 60 votes needed to proceed.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a military lawyer who opposes the change, accused Democrats of having "poisoned the well" by blocking amendments on the bill and of being "driven by politics."

But Graham said that while he would vote no on Saturday, "quite frankly I understand that times are changing, and I understand the policy over time may change."