This is a significant development. It’s one thing for Mike Mullen and Colin Powell to go on the record favoring the repeal of the military’s don’t ask don’t tell policy, it’s another for Republicans with the responsibility of voting on the policy talking about their openness to repeal. Susan Collins, in her questioning yesterday in the Senate Armed Services Committee, is unmistakably a vote for repeal. And now, appearing on Andrea Mitchell’s show, Orrin Hatch signaled his willingness to repeal the policy, although he’s clearly hedging his bets. Here’s a rough transcript of what Hatch had to say:

Hatch: I think people are very concerned. I believe there are very outstanding, patriotic gay people who serve in the military who ought to be given credit for it. And they shouldn’t have to lie about being gay. On the other hand, I think a lot of people are concerned that if you do away with the don’t ask don’t tell, that then they’ll come back and ask for special rights and preferences and privileges that others don’t have. I don’t see that either. So, like I say, I just plain do not believe in prejudice of any kind.

Mitchell: So you’re willing to vote for the change?

Hatch: Well I don’t know about that, I’d have to look at it. I’d have to really see, and of course, they recommend, Admiral Mullen said at least a year study by them, and then they’d come out and make the final recommendation. At least that’s what I got out of it. I’d like to wait until the end and then see what they come up with and see what happens. I can see why people on both sides are upset, but I just want to do what’s right.

Mitchell: I can put you down as being open to it.

Hatch: I am.

Hatch gave himself all kinds of wiggle room, but the lack of a united front on this policy among Republicans weakens their ability to block it. If Collins is a yes vote – and she pretty clearly is – then the decision of moving forward falls to Democrats (and not one in the Armed Services Committee hearing raised a problem with it, although we haven’t heard from Ben Nelson yet). Hatch’s willingness makes it impossible for Democrats to use the “we don’t have the 60 votes” claim on this policy. They don’t have to anyway, because they could stick DADT repeal in the defense authorization bill anyway, which would require an amendment – and in all likelihood, 60 votes – to get repeal OUT. This is how the policy passed in the first place.

The point is that Hatch’s openness takes away the rhetorical case for not passing repeal. He’s hiding behind the one-year Pentagon study, and in the end, he may not vote for it at all. But he’s useful at the moment.