Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), talks about the passage of legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" at the Capitol on Saturday.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), talks about the passage of legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" at the Capitol on Saturday. Alex Brandon/AP
In a landmark for gay rights, the U.S. Senate on Saturday voted to let gays serve openly in the military, giving President Barack Obama the chance to fulfill a campaign promise and repeal the 17-year policy known as "don't ask, don't tell.''
Obama was expected to sign it next week, although the change wouldn't take immediate effect. The legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' fighting ability. After that, there's a 60-day waiting period for the military.
"It is time to close this chapter in our history,'' Obama said in a statement after a test vote cleared the way for final action. "It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed.''
The Senate vote was 65-31. The House had passed an identical version of the bill, 250-175, on Wednesday.
Nation At War
The vote was almost anti-climactic. Only a simple majority was needed to pass the legislation. The real drama came earlier in the day, when a supermajority of 60 senators had to be mustered in a procedural vote to move the bill past the threat of a GOP filibuster.
As supporters of repeal packed the upper Senate chamber, lawmakers made their cases for and against on the floor below. Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, one of the leading advocates of overturning "don't ask, don't tell," denied allegations by Republicans that the vote was meant to placate liberals and gay rights activists.
"Repealing this law is not about scoring political points or catering to a special interest group," he said. "Rather it's about doing the right thing for our national security, especially during a time of two wars."
Critics of repeal argued that a nation involved in two wars couldn't risk a big change in a military personnel policy. Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss pointed to recent testimony from Army and Marine Corps commanders, who urged Congress to hold off.
"It does have the potential for increasing the risk of harm and death to our men and women who are serving in combat today," he said. "If for no other reason, we ought not to repeal this today. Should it be done at some point in time, maybe so, but in the middle of a military conflict is not the time to do it."
Rounding up a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was a historic victory for Obama, who made repeal a campaign promise in 2008. It also was a political triumph for congressional Democrats who struggled in the final hours of the postelection session to overcome Republican objections on several legislative priorities before Republicans regain control of the House in January.
"As Barry Goldwater said, 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight,''' said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, referring to the late Republican senator from Arizona.
Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican rival in 2008, led the opposition. The Arizona Republican acknowledged he didn't have the votes to stop the bill and he blamed elite liberals with no military experience for pushing their social agenda on troops during wartime.
"They will do what is asked of them,'' McCain said of service members. "But don't think there won't be a great cost.''
In the end, six Republican senators broke with their party on the procedural vote to let the bill move ahead and swung behind repeal after a recent Pentagon study concluded the ban could be lifted without hurting the ability of troops to fight.
"Today's vote said if you want to discriminate, it has no place in America," Reid said. "It has no place in the armed forces. It said that we don't care who you love as long as you love your country."
Repeal would mean that, for the first time in American history, gays would be openly accepted by the military and could acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out.
More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law that forced gay men and women in the military to hide their sexual identity.
Advocacy groups who lobbied hard for repeal hailed the vote as a significant step forward in gay rights. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network called the issue the "defining civil rights initiative of this decade.''
At a news conference at the Capitol, Joe Solmonese, the president of the gay rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said history was made.
"We are grateful that our nation recognized that we should be able to serve our nation openly and honestly," he said.
But an actual repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" won't happen until Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen certify that the military is ready for such a change. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said it's unclear how long that will take.
"Secretary Gates has assured everybody that he is not going to certify that the military is ready for repeal until he is satisfied with the advice of the service chiefs that we have, in fact, mitigated if not eliminated to the extent possible risks to combat readiness, to unit cohesion and effectiveness," he said.
Impact On Military
The Pentagon study found that two-thirds of service members didn't think changing the law would have much of an effect. But of those who did predict negative consequences, a majority were assigned to combat arms units. Nearly 60 percent of the Marine Corps and Army combat units, such as infantry and special operations, said in the survey they thought repealing the law would hurt their units' ability to fight.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), left, stands with Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), during a news conference about the measure to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), left, stands with Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), during a news conference about the measure to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Alex Brandon/AP
The Pentagon's uniformed chiefs are divided on whether this resistance might pose serious problems.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos has said he thinks lifting the ban during wartime could cost lives.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction,'' he told reporters this week. "I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda [Naval Medical Center] with no legs be the result of any type of distraction.''
Mullen and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said the fear of disruption is overblown. They note the Pentagon's finding that 92 percent of troops who believe they have served with a gay person saw no effect on their units' morale or effectiveness. Among Marines in combat roles who said they have served alongside a gay person, 84 percent said there was no impact.
Once Obama and his advisers certify that repealing the law won't hurt the military's fighting ability, there will be a mandatory 60-day waiting period before repeal of the law takes effect.
"During this limbo interim period, I respectfully call upon the secretary of Defense, Secretary Gates, to use his existing authority to suspend all investigations and all discharges until the law is finally repealed," said Audrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
NPR's David Welna contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.