Senate Votes To Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

It was a momentous day for those who've fought to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" ever since Congress passed the law 17 years ago. After having cleared the House earlier in the week, the bill authorizing repeal passed the Senate in a resounding 65-to-31 vote. It's now headed for President Obama's signature.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The Senate's to-do list is packed for the final days of the not-so-lame-duck session of Congress. Ratification of the nuclear arms treaty with Russia is on today's agenda. Yesterday, the Senate voted on two big items: a bill that would have granted citizenship to some illegal immigrants, and a measure to roll back the policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military.

As NPR's David Welna reports, don't ask, don't tell may soon be history.

DAVID WELNA: It was a momentous day for those who fought to repeal don't ask, don't tell ever since Congress passed that law 17 years ago. After having cleared the House earlier this week, the bill authorizing the repeal passed the Senate in a resounding 65 to 31 vote. It's now headed for President Obama's signature.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand said Congress was responding to what voters said they wanted.

Senator KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (Democrat, New York): The last election was very much about a statement by the American public saying that they want their public servants to come together to get the people's business done. And I can think of no more important piece of legislation than repealing this corrosive, unjust, discriminatory policy, one that entirely undermined our national security and our military readiness.

WELNA: The Republican leading the opposition for a repeal said Democrats got the wrong message from the election. Arizona's John McCain said thousands of active duty and retired service members have urged him to fight any change in the policy banning gays from serving openly.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And they're saying, Senator McCain, it isn't broke and don't fix it. So, all of this talk about how it's a civil rights issue, equality, the fact is the military has the highest recruiting and highest retention than any time in its history.

WELNA: But eight of McCain's fellow Republicans did conclude the policy was broken and voted with the Democrats to end don't ask, don't tell. One of them, Maine's Susan Collins, called the day historic.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I want to thank all of the gay men and women that are fighting for us today in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We honor your service and now we can do so openly.

WELNA: There was a word of caution, though, amid the celebration at the Capitol. Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, warned that the certification process the bill requires to implement repeal could take a while.

Mr. AUBREY SARVIS (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network): Repeal is not yet final. The president will sign this bill shortly. The certification process must go forward and the 60-day congressional period must go forward as well.

WELNA: But while the repeal bill will soon become law, that's not the case for the so-called DREAM Act the Senate voted on yesterday. The measure would make a pathway to citizenship for college students and service members who were brought by their parents to the U.S. illegally as children.

Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, pleaded with colleagues to vote for it as an act of political courage.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Many of you have told me that you're lying awake at night tossing and turning over this vote because you know how hard it's going to be politically. Some people have tried to use it against you.

But I might say that if you can summon the courage to vote for the DREAM Act today, you will join ranks with senators before you who have come before this United States and made history with their courage, who stood up and said the cause of justice is worth the political risk.

WELNA: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions asserted the DREAM Act was nothing more than an amnesty for illegal intruders.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Here were are in the final days of a lame duck - some say dead duck - Congress considering a bill that would create a major problem to the effective enforcement of immigration laws.

WELNA: In the end, the DREAM Act fell five votes shy of the 60 needed to move forward.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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