President Obama's pledge to lift the military's ban on openly gay service members this year seems at best headed for extremely close votes in the House and Senate, according to Congress watchers.
The president's proposal needs 218 votes in the House. A bill to repeal the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" has fewer than 190 co-sponsors.
What's more, a number of Democrats representing conservative districts, led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, are set to buck the president and vote against repeal.
In the Senate, senators who support the ban could filibuster the 2011 defense authorization bill if it contains a repeal, giving opponents of the ban an uphill task of gathering 60 votes. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has announced that he opposes a change, allowing conservatives to rally around a war-hero senator.
Gay rights forces are also facing a ticking clock. If the GOP gains House and Senate seats in November, as national polls indicate, chances for repeal would diminish further next year.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a leading opponent of the ban, said last week: "We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010."
Potential votes are being counted as Mr. Obama asks moderate and conservative Democrats — already nervous about an electorate that now favors Republicans in generic polling — to back a gay rights initiative in an election year.
Mr. Skelton said on C-SPAN on Jan. 15 that his full committee, unlike its Senate counterpart, will not hold a hearing on repeal, instead assigning the issue to a subcommittee. His opposition likely means that Democrats will have to muster a committee majority to insert language in the budget bill and send it to the floor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, could refuse to allow a floor amendment vote to strike the language.
If that happens, there will be a vote to send the bill back to committee, Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, told The Washington Times.
"I would favor keeping the policy as it is. It is a system that is working," said Mr. Wilson, the top Republican on the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, where Mr. Skelton has said a hearing will be held.
Mr. Wilson said that even if Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorses repeal, "I would still believe that at this time it is not the time to make a change as we are confronting two wars. I would be of the opinion we have a system that is working. … It has been very respectful of a person's privacy."
Democrats say they will try to revoke the ban through the yearly authorization bill, which oversees changes to Title 10, the federal code that contains the current law signed by President Clinton in 1993. The House and Senate Armed Services committees produce bills each year and reconcile them in conference.
The Servicemembers group backed that idea, saying, "We call on the president to repeal the [don't ask, don't tell] law in his defense budget currently being drafted, which is probably the only and best-moving bill where [the policy] can be killed this year."
Mr. Clinton moved to lift the ban in his first month in office, but encountered heavy political opposition from members of both parties and outside pro-military groups. He signed the ban into law but approved a separate policy, "don't ask, don't tell," to implement the ban. Under the policy, open homosexuality is prohibited because it is deemed harmful to unit morale and cohesion.
The congressional debate officially kicks off Tuesday, when Adm. Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on ways to let acknowledged gays wear the uniform.
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen have not publicly endorsed repeal. They have urged the White House to move carefully as military personnel deal with the stresses of war deployments. The Washington Times reported in November that Gen. James T. Conway, Marine commandant and Joint Chiefs member, has spoken forcefully in opposition to repeal in closed-door discussions.
Dani Doane, who handles House relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said she thinks Mrs. Pelosi can generate the votes needed for repeal, partly because of support from some moderates who are retiring and are not worried about re-election.
"It may be the only potential big win for them, so they would need the boost going into November," she said. "I think the Senate is a bigger problem."
Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat, is the leading sponsor of the repeal bill.
Elaine Donnelly, who directs the Livonia, Mich.-based Center for Military Readiness and favors an outright ban, said she doubts his proposal has enough support.
"Assessing Democrats who voted the right way on related issues, such as hate crimes, Patrick Murphy does not have sufficient votes to pass his bill," she said. "We do not believe that there is sufficient support on the full committees, either. An attempted floor vote end-run around the committees is always possible, but given the political shift since Massachusetts, [conservative congressional] Blue Dogs and sensible members on both sides of the aisle will be reluctant to vote for a [gay rights] law for the military."
But Kate Hansen, Mr. Murphy's spokeswoman, said, "If repeal comes to the floor, we are confident it will pass."
Concerning Mr. Skelton's opposition, she said, "Rep. Murphy holds Chairman Skelton in the highest regard and believes he is an outstanding leader for [the House Armed Services Committee], but clearly disagrees with his opposition to repeal, and he has continued to round up support from his colleagues to overturn this discriminatory policy."
The Times contacted the offices of leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of moderate and conservative Democrats, but did not get a response.
The military has expelled more than 13,000 service members under "don't ask, don't tell" since 1994, an average of fewer than 1,000 annually from the 1.46 million active force.
Some trends are working in favor of Mr. Obama, who reiterated his pledge to end the ban in last week's State of the Union address.
Public opinion polls have shifted since 1993 and now show that most Americans support allowing gays to serve openly in the military. No conservative grass-roots efforts have emerged to retain the ban, as was the case in 1993.
Some military surveys show that most service members favor the prohibition.
Mr. Obama must find enough votes to overturn existing law. Mr. Clinton needed only to change a regulation.
"Gays in the military is not yet on the radar screen," Mrs. Donnelly said. "But it will be, given the State of the Union address and his support of this LGBT law for the military." LGBT stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender."