Democrats' last-ditch pre-election effort to pass gay-rights and immigration legislation fell short Tuesday after the Senate blocked the defense policy bill and as Republicans questioned Democrats' motives, arguing that now isn't the time for those politically charged debates.
Two Democrats joined 40 Republicans to filibuster the bill, overcoming most Democrats who wanted to begin debate on legislation, which includes pay raises for the troops and sets weapons systems policies, as well as tackling thornier issues such as abortions at military hospitals and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that has governed gays' military service for 17 years.
The GOP's stance was boosted by Marine Corps Gen. James Amos, who told a congressional panel Tuesday that a survey found a majority of Marines are opposed to changing the policy.
And even several Republicans who want to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy joined to block the defense bill, saying they didn't trust Democrats to let Republicans offer amendments and have a full debate.
"The majority leader intends to shut down the debate," said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who voted in committee to end the military's policy but who said Republicans' right to offer amendments is just as important.
But Democrats accused Republicans of hiding behind procedural objections rather than fighting over the amendments themselves.
"Stop cowering in the shadows," challenged Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and a major backer of the immigration proposal known as the Dream Act, which would legalize many illegal immigrant children.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he intended to force an immigration debate on the defense bill by trying to attach the Dream Act as an amendment.
Considered must-pass legislation, the defense policy bill has become a catch-all this year for many issues that have piled up as Congress tackled health care, financial regulations and spending to try to create jobs.
Democrats said they haven't shut down debate and said Tuesday's vote was just about whether to begin considering the bill, and they said Republicans should wait and see how the debate goes before deciding it's been short-circuited.
"The time to determine whether or not there has been adequate opportunity to debate the bill is after you have had the opportunity to debate the bill," said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who is Armed Services Committee chairman. "That judgment cannot be made in advance."
But Republicans said their experience last year, when Democrats attached hate-crimes legislation to the defense bill, has left them unwilling to take chances.
Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both Arkansas Democrats, joined with Republicans in the filibuster, which led Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the ranking GOP member on the Armed Services Committee, to declare the filibuster bipartisan.
Mr. Reid has vowed to bring the bill up again after the elections.
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