WASHINGTON - It's John McCain versus Lady Gaga on Tuesday as the Senate takes up the emotional issue of repealing the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Senate Democrats have attached repeal of the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law to a bill authorizing $726 billion in military spending next year. The fate of the move appears uncertain, but whichever way the votes go, repeal seems destined to become a major issue in this fall's midterm elections.
The law is already under siege. A federal judge in California recently ruled the ban on gays was unconstitutional, polls suggest a majority of Americans oppose it and Lady Gaga has challenged it in a YouTube video.
Repeal advocates say the law deprives the military of capable soldiers and violates civil rights.
But McCain of Arizona and other prominent Republicans are fighting to keep the law in place, at least until the Pentagon completes a survey later this year on repeal's likely effect on troops. GOP critics say lifting the ban at a time when troops are fighting two wars would undermine morale.
"I regret to see that the long-respected and revered Senate Armed Services Committee has evolved into a forum for a social agenda of the liberal left of the Senate," McCain said last week on the Senate floor.
An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law since its inception in 1993. Although most dismissals have resulted from gay service members outing themselves, gay rights' groups say it has been used by vindictive co-workers to drum out troops who never made their sexuality an issue.
Top defense leaders, including Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, have said they support a repeal but want to move slowly to ensure changes won't hurt morale.
Gates has asked Congress not to act until the military finishes a study, due Dec. 1, on how to lift the ban without causing problems.
He also has said he could live with the proposed legislation because it would postpone implementation until 60 days after the Pentagon completes its review and the president certifies that repeal won't hurt morale, recruiting or retention.
The provision is included in a broader defense policy bill that authorizes $726 billion in military spending for next year, including $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 1.4 percent pay raise for the troops.
By reviving the issue just before the midterm Congressional elections, Democrats are trying to score points with their political base and portray Republicans as obstructionists willing to shoot down a bill that includes the pay raises.
According to a February 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of Americans said they favor allowing gays to serve openly, while 27 percent said they are opposed.
"Don't ask, don't tell" has become a perennial battleground in America's ongoing culture wars. This time, though, the forces backing repeal seem closer to victory than ever because Democrats control both the White House and Congress.
The House has already passed similar legislation. More recently, a federal judge in Los Angeles sided with a gay rights group and ruled that the military's policy violates due-process and free-speech rights.
Pop star Lady Gaga led a political rally in favor of repeal in Maine on Monday. The state is home to the two Republican senators - Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins - seen as most likely to side with Democrats on the issue. Lady Gaga said it was unjust to have goodhearted gay soldiers booted from military service while straight soldiers who harbor hatred toward gays are allowed to fight for their country.
She suggested a new policy should target straight soldiers who are "uncomfortable" with gay soldiers in their midst.
"Our new law is called 'If you don't like it, go home!'" she said.
Collins and Snowe have not said how they will vote this week. While Collins sided with Democrats during committee deliberations on the bill, Snowe says she would prefer to keep the ban intact until the Pentagon completes its Dec. 1 study.
In a statement, Snowe also raised questions about procedural tactics being used by Democrats to limit debate on the bill by restricting the number of amendments to three.
Spokesman John Gentzel said Snowe was paying attention to the Lady Gaga rally. But he referred reporters to Snowe's statement that said the Senate needs more time.
It's not clear whether repeal will pass the Senate. Even if Democrats block McCain's proposal to strip the provision from the spending bill, final passage is likely to be complicated by other issues.
Republicans are also hotly contesting a separate provision that would lift a long-standing ban on abortions at military facilities.
And in yet another nod to election-year politics, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wants to attach the DREAM Act to the bill. The provision would allow thousands of young illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military to become legal U.S. residents.
Democrats say the immigration measure would boost military recruitment while Republicans say it would unfairly reward illegal immigrants with amnesty.
Reid has said a final vote on the defense policy bill may have to wait until after the elections.