Senate votes 65-31 to repeal ban on military gays serving openly

The Clinton-era policy banning gays from serving openly in the military will soon be history after the Senate voted Saturday afternoon to repeal it.

Eight Republican senators joined almost the entire Senate Democratic conference to approve by a vote of 65 to 31 a measure repealing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

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GOP Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) were expected to vote yes. Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), John Ensign (Nev.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) were late surprises.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) was absent.

The vote hands President Obama his second major victory of the lame-duck session of Congress after lawmakers approved an $858 billion package of tax relief and unemployment benefits.

“Today, the Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend,” Obama said in a statement.

“By ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” Obama said. “And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.”

The Senate voted 63 to 33 earlier in the day to end a Republican filibuster of the bill. Burr and Ensign supported the filibuster but later defected to vote yes for final passage.

Obama pledged to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” during the 2008 campaign and came under heavy pressure from gay-rights advocacy groups to end discrimination against gays in the military.

Obama held off on pushing Congress to approve a repeal until recent months as he focused on passing healthcare reform and improving the economy.

The president told reporters at a press conference shortly after the mid-term election he hoped lawmakers would approve the repeal during the lame-duck session.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, blasted the president for pushing a major policy between the midterm election and the Republican takeover of the House next year.

“Here we are about six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side, we are jamming — or trying to jam major issues through the Senate of the United States because they know they can’t get it done beginning next Jan. 5,” McCain said.

Repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” appeared in doubt earlier this fall when Senate Republicans twice voted to block defense authorization legislation that included the measure.

Collins was the only Republican to vote to advance the defense bill with a repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” when it came to the floor Dec. 9.

The repeal gained new life, however, after Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced he would separate the repeal from the broader defense bill and advance it as a free-standing measure.

The effort to allow gays to serve openly in the military is not over, however.

The repeal measure requires the president and the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to send a certification to Congress declaring they have considered the recommendations contained in the Pentagon Working Group report on repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell."

They must also certify that the Department of Defense has prepared the necessary policies and regulations to implement the repeal and that those policies are consistent with military standards for readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.

Supporters estimate it affects more than 60,000 military personnel.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy established under former President Bill Clinton, will not be repealed until 60 days after Obama submits the certification to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed the study and pressed Congress to pass the repeal to avoid having courts resolve the issue.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called on Gates to suspend all investigations and disciplinary action against gay service members while the implementation of the new policy is pending.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) endorsed Savis’s request at a press conference Tuesday.

Democratic leaders have clinched a big victory for gay-rights activists with only a few days to spare. If Congress had not passed the repeal before the end of the year, it would have had little chance of success next year when Republicans will control the House.

Reid applauded the accomplishment.

“Repealing ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is the right thing to do and if that were the only argument that would be enough but there’s more than that,” Reid told reporters. “Repealing this policy will make our military stronger. Someone said this is not the time to repeal this policy and they’re right. It should have been done yesterday.”