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Repeal of the ban on gays openly serving in the US military once seemed a safe bet, given profound changes in public attitudes and even support at the highest levels of the Pentagon.
But no longer.
Republican opposition to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has stiffened since their victory in mid-term elections last week, dimming prospects for action in Congress, even Democrats acknowledge.
The White House is pushing for repeal this year in a lame duck session of Congress, recognizing that it will be even tougher to end the 17-year-ban when Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives next year.
But Democratic leaders, some of whom barely survived the elections themselves, see mounting obstacles.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "can't do it alone," said Jim Manley, his spokesman. "The senator needs Republicans to at least agree to have a debate on this issue -- a debate he firmly believes the Senate should have."
A key Republican is John McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who once spoke in favor of repeal but has shifted position since facing a sharp challenge from the right within his own party in Arizona.
Senator Carl Levin, the committee's chairman, has been in discussions with McCain on how to proceed with the measure, which is included in a defense spending bill, Levin's spokesperson, Tara Andringa, said.
But McCain is now pressing for the measure to be stripped entirely from the defense bill.
He and other Republicans had already succeeded in delaying consideration of the defense spending bill until the release of a Pentagon review of how the change in policy would be implemented, which is due December 1.
"It's unfortunate that Senator McCain -- who previously expressed support for the repeal of this law -- and other senate Republicans are ignoring the advice of our military leaders to reverse this discriminatory policy that not only harms our men and women in uniform, but also our national security," Manley said.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Sunday he would like to see the ban repealed this year, but added: "I'm not sure what the prospects for that are."
Winnie Stachelberg, a gay rights activist at the liberal Center for American Progress, said she thought there was still a "solid" chance of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" this year.
She added, though: "I think the prospects for next year are very grim and bleak."
The debate is expected to reach full pitch when the Pentagon weighs in with its months-long review of the impact on the military of allowing gays to serve openly.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that a Pentagon survey of active-duty forces and their families found that a majority do not care if gay men and women serve openly.
Both Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support repeal, but the heads of the military services have made little secret of their discomfort with it.
General James Amos, the new commandant of the Marine Corps, warned in remarks published over the weekend of the risk of making the change at a time US forces are fighting two wars.
"I'm trying to determine how to measure that risk. This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness."
Amos argued that combat was an "intimate" experience without parallel in civilian life, the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying.
"We're talking about our young men -- laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers," he said.
His comments drew a public rebuke from Mullen, who was traveling in Australia with Gates when Amos remarks were published.
"I was surprised what he said, surprised he said it publicly," Mullen told reporters at a briefing in Melbourne.
Supporters remain hopeful repeal will be enacted despite the slipping political ground.
Jarrod Chlapowski, field director at Servicemembers United, a gay rights group, said: "There is still a very good chance in the lame duck session to go forward on a bill that respects both sides of the aisle."
But he acknowledged it was going to be difficult -- "not because of the votes but because of the time. There is very little time."
Meanwhile, lawyers for a gay Republican group have filed an appeal over the law with the Supreme Court. A lower court judge had ruled it infringed on the civil liberties of gays, but an appeals court stayed the court's order to repeal the law.
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