WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates is encouraging Congress to act before year's end to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military. It's a position shared by his boss, the president.

But his new Marine commandant thinks otherwise and the Senate has not yet taken action, setting up yet another hurdle for gay activists who see their window quickly closing. After Tuesday's elections that saw Republicans chip away at Democrats' majority in the Senate and wrest the House from their control, their hopes for ending the 17-year-old law have dimmed.

"I would like to see the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' but I'm not sure what the prospects for that are and we'll just have to see," Gates told reporters traveling with him to Australia this weekend.

Gates has said he would prefer Congress act after the Pentagon releases its study of how repeal would be implemented, which is due Dec. 1. That goal, though, lacks the backing of the Marine Corps commandant at a moment the country is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness," Gen. James Amos said.

That hesitation could be enough to give senators permission not to act, activists fear.

The House has passed legislation repealing "don't ask, don't tell," but it has not seen a vote in the full Senate, where Democrats don't have the votes to overcome a GOP filibuster. Democratic leaders say they are trying to reach a deal across the aisle. Gay activists worry the repeal could be stripped from the bill that funds the Pentagon.

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