Congressional Democrats’ last-ditch, pre-election effort to pass gay rights and immigration legislation fell victim to a Republican-led filibuster Tuesday, dealing a setback to those trying to lift the ban on openly gay troops serving in the U.S. military.
The filibuster also ended Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hopes of attaching an amendment legalizing illegal immigrant children to the defense bill.
Immigrant- and gay-rights groups blasted the GOP move, and Democrats said they might try again later this year. In the meantime, they tried to get the maximum mileage politically out of Tuesday’s filibuster, with one Democratic leader accusing Republicans of “cowering” behind procedural rules.
But Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said trying to force immigration-reform and gay-rights debates on the defense bill was more about the upcoming midterm elections than it was about making laws.
“It was a blatant and cynical attempt to galvanize the Hispanic vote in the case of the [immigration bill] and also energize the gay and lesbian vote,” Mr. McCain said.
The filibuster likely ends the Senate’s major legislative business for the year, leaving lawmakers to pass stopgap spending measures, approve some nominations and finish other odds and ends before facing voters in November.
Two Democrats joined 40 Republicans in support of the filibuster, which blocked the Senate from even beginning debate on the defense bill. The authorization bill includes popular programs such as pay raises for the troops, as well as tackling thornier issues like abortions at military hospitals and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
That policy, developed under President Clinton in 1993, dominated much of the debate, and gay-rights groups declared Tuesday’s vote a major test of support. Pop music star Lady Gaga headlined a rally in Maine to try to sway the state’s two Republican senators to break with their party.
One of those lawmakers, Sen. Susan Collins, voted in committee to end the policy and said she still thinks it’s time to change the rules. But Ms. Collins added that Senate Democrats weren’t guaranteeing a fair floor debate on that and other parts of the bill.
“For the life of me, I do not understand why [Mr. Reid] doesn’t bring this bill to the floor and allow free and open debate and amendments from both sides of the aisle,” she said.
Many Republicans wanted to debate amendments on how the U.S. would handle trials for suspected terrorists, and also wanted a chance to try to strike language that would allow military hospitals to provide abortions to women willing to pay for them.
But Democrats accused Republicans of hiding behind procedural objections, rather than fighting over the amendments themselves.
“Stop cowering in the shadows,” said 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.
The final vote was 56-43 to end the filibuster, with GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski not voting and Mr. Reid switching his vote at the last moment in a parliamentary move to preserve his right to bring up the legislation again. Sixty votes are needed to defeat the filibuster.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, said the senator would be willing to allow more debate on the bill after the November elections in a possible lame-duck session.
But “today’s vote isn’t about arcane Senate procedures,” Mr. Manley told reporters. “It’s about a GOP pattern of obstructing debate on policies important to the American people.”
Considered must-pass legislation, the defense policy bill has become a catchall this year for many issues that have piled up as Congress tackled health care, financial regulations and spending to try to create jobs.
Foremost among them is the military’s policy on homosexuality in the ranks.
Thousands of troops have been dismissed under the policy, including some in critical jobs such as translation or intelligence work.
Democrats said both the country and the military have changed since 1993, and are ready for gays and lesbians to serve openly.
Earlier this year, there appeared to be an agreement to let the military finish surveying troops to see whether changing the policy would hurt readiness, and then let lawmakers review those findings before lifting the ban.
But over the summer the Senate Armed Services Committee voted instead to lift the policy, contingent only on top military leaders’ certification that it wouldn’t harm readiness.
Republicans and some Democrats objected to that, saying that Congress should wait for the review.
Their stance was boosted by Marine Gen. James Amos, who has been nominated to be commandant of the Marine Corps and who told a congressional panel Tuesday that a survey found a majority of Marines are opposed to changing the policy.
Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrats, joined with Republicans in the filibuster, which led Mr. McCain to declare the filibuster effort bipartisan.
Democrats said they haven’t shut down debate and said Tuesday’s vote was just about whether to begin considering the bill. They argued that Republicans should wait to see how the debate goes before deciding whether the discussion had 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 Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat. “That judgment cannot be made in advance.”
But Republicans said their experience last year, when Democrats attached an unrelated hate-crimes amendment to the defense bill, has left them unwilling to take chances.