Congress Overturns Military Ban of Gays Serving Openly, Sends Bill to Obama's Desk

WASHINGTON -- In a landmark vote, the Senate on Saturday ended the Clinton-era ban on gays serving openly in the military, marking a major triumph for President Obama, liberals and the gay community.

The final vote to end the Pentagon's 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" policy was 65-31, drawing support from eight Republicans.

The bill now goes to the White House for Obama's signature. He is expected to sign the bill into law next week, a senior White House aide told Fox News.

"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."

Once the law is repealed, gays will be openly accepted by the military for the first time in U.S. history, and can acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out. More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law.

After two failed attempts this year to repeal the policy, the third time proved to be the charm for Congress. The bill passed the House this week in a 250-175 vote, and cleared a final Senate hurdle earlier Saturday in a 63-33 vote, clearing the way for final passage.

The eight Republicans who joined Democrats in passing the repeal were: Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois, George Voinovich of Ohio, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Voinovich said in a statement that he had vowed to keep an open mind until the release earlier this month of the Pentagon's report on the impact of overturning the ban.

"Having reviewed the report, I accept its findings and Secertary Gates' recommendation and reassurance that the repeal will be implemented when the battle effectiveness of our forces is assured and proper preparations have been completed," he said.

Supporters of repealing the ban applauded the repeal.

"Today's vote is the critical strike against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and toward creating a path that could end in lesbian, gay and bisexual people being able to serve openly, honestly, and to great benefit of our country," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "We celebrate this important victory and thank all the senators who supported fairness today. We are on the brink of making history."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the vote "closes the door on a fundamental unfairness in our nation."

"When President Obama signs this bill into law, we will begin opening the doors of our armed forces to all patriotic Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation," she said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he welcomed repeal of the policy and added that the Pentagon "will immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was pleased to see Congress repeal the policy.

"More critically, it is the right thing to do," he said. "No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so. We will be a better military as a result."

Secretary Hillary Clinton, who was first lady when "don't ask, don't tell" was first enacted, issued a statement cheering its repeal.

"This is historic step forward for all Americans, a step toward a more perfect union and a more perfect reflection of our core values," she said. "As the president and I have repeatedly said, we are committed to universal standards abroad and here at home. Our progress on equality here strengthens our advocacy for human dignity everywhere."

The passage delivers a resounding victory to Obama, who made repeal of the 17-year-old law a campaign promise in 2008.

It also is a win for congressional Democrats who have struggled in the final hours of the lame-duck session to overcome Republican objections, and for gay rights groups who said Saturday's vote was their best shot at changing the law because a new GOP-dominated Congress will take control in January.

Under the bill, the president and his top military advisers -- the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- are required to certify to Congress that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight. After that, 60 days must pass before any changes go into effect.

A small but vocal group of Republicans led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the law shouldn't be changed during wartime.

"We send these young people into combat," said McCain. "We think they're mature enough to fight and die. I think they're mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness."

But the Democratic push for repeal was strengthened by the release of a major Pentagon study that concluded gays could serve openly without affecting combat effectiveness. The assessment found that two-thirds of troops predicted little impact if the law is repealed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.