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“The problem we have with the defense-authorization bill is that it takes a while to get it done,” Mr. Reid said. “If we could get some agreement from the Republicans that we could move the bill without a lot of extraneous amendments, I think it’s something we could work out. Time agreements on a few amendments. That would be my goal.”

Aaron Belkin, who directs the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Palm Center, which does pro-gay research, is not optimistic.

“Republicans all seem to favor discrimination,” he said. “Even if [Sen. Susan] Collins flips, they need to have two votes, plus time for amendments and conference. That’s tough to do in one month.”

Miss Collins voted for repeal in committee, but joined in the filibuster because Mr. Reid would only allow two amendments.

“If the Senate doesn’t pass the military budget during the lame duck, it is going to be difficult to get repeal through the next Congress,” Mr. Belkin said.

If there is no repeal bill this year, that would leave the debate in the courts, where a district court judge in California has ordered the military to end the ban. A federal appeals court then blocked the order, at the Obama’s administration’s behest, as it weighs the Justice Department’s appeal.

If the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals orders the Pentagon to allow open gays, then the Obama administration could comply or petition the U.S. Supreme Court. The White House has said the issue should be settled by the president and Congress.

Mr. Gates raised the prospect this week that if Congress does not repeal the ban, the courts will.

Since the ban became law, as opposed to regulation, in 1993, at least eight federal appeals courts have rejected arguments to throw out the law. The Supreme Court has let the rulings stand.

“I would say that … leaving “don’t ask, don’t tell” behind us is inevitable,” Mr. Gates told ABC News. “The question is whether it is done by legislation that allows us to do it in a thoughtful and careful way, or whether it is struck down by the courts, because the recent court decisions are certainly pointing in that direction.”