By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill to repeal a ban against gays serving openly in the U.S. military.
On a largely party-line vote of 250-175, the House sent the legislation supported by President Barack Obama to the Senate, where the prospects for approval are uncertain.
The vote came just a week after Senate Republicans blocked a similar measure to end the policy -- known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- as part of an annual defense bill.
Senate backers now say they have the needed 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to clear such a hurdle and pass the new stand-alone measure before lawmakers wrap up their work for the year. "We are very confident that there are at least 60 votes," a Senate aide said.
"We'll see," said a Republican aide. "They said they thought they could get 60 last time."
Opponents of repeal also question whether there's enough time on the Senate's year-end schedule to take up the measure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has promised to find time for this and other matters, planning rare weekend sessions and possibly meeting after Christmas.
If Congress doesn't repeal the policy, the issue may be decided by the courts, where the ban has been challenged.
Obama, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, want to do away with the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but favor a congressional rather than a court-imposed remedy.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates wants the Senate to promptly pass the House bill.
Such action, Morrell said, would enable the Defense Department to "carefully and responsibly manage a change in this policy instead of risking an abrupt change resulting from a decision in the courts."
At least 13,000 men and women have been expelled from the U.S. military under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which allows gays to serve in the armed forces as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret. It was passed by Congress and implemented in 1993 under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Obama, a Democrat, took office in January 2009 vowing to end the policy, calling it unfair and unwise.
But Obama has faced Republican opposition led by his challenger in the 2008 White House race, Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
At a Senate hearing this month, McCain said it may be too early to end the ban and challenged a recent Pentagon study that forecast little impact if the policy were lifted.
Opponents of gays serving openly in the military argue that lifting the ban would undermine order and discipline and harm unit cohesiveness, especially among combat troops.
Those favoring repeal contend the ban is discriminatory, denies the military needed soldiers and, in Obama's words, "violates fundamental American principles of fairness, integrity and equality."
While Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocate repeal, there is uneven support in the military.
Marine Corps Commandant James Amos has warned that ending the policy could be dangerous while the United States is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander)
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by John O'Callaghan)