WASHINGTON — In a landmark for gay rights, the 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.
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.
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 GOP 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, D-Nev., referring to the late GOP senator from Arizona.
Sen. John McCain, Obama’s GOP 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 GOP 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.