The Senate cleared the way today to repeal the U.S. ban on military service by openly gay men and women.
The Senate’s 63-33 procedural vote was more than the 60 votes needed to go ahead with a final vote this afternoon. Opponents had used Senate rules to block consideration even though a majority of senators said they would vote to repeal.
President Barack Obama, who promised to repeal the 1993 law, praised the vote as “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.”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was considered a compromise when first passed. It allowed gays to serve if their sexual orientation were kept private.
Passage of the repeal would overturn laws, policies and cultural mores that have prohibited gays from serving openly in the U.S. military since the American Revolution.
“Today the Senate has the opportunity to be on the right side of history,” Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said on the Senate floor today.
More than 14,000 service members have been discharged for being gay since 1993, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay-rights advocacy group.
Critics, including Arizona Republican John McCain and the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, said repealing the ban would be a threat to “good order and discipline” in the military in a time of war. They asked that any change be delayed.
“The first casualty in the war in Iraq was a gay soldier,” Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a Michigan Democrat, said today. “We cannot let these patriots down.”
Passage of the repeal, first approved by the House in May, would be a win for Obama just weeks after his self-described “shellacking” in November’s mid-term elections.
Eliminating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law doesn’t immediately change Pentagon policy. Under the legislation, the ban would remain in effect until 60 days after Obama and Pentagon leaders certify that the Defense Department is ready for the new policy.
Defense officials have not said how long that process could take. A Pentagon task force, in a report issued last month, outlined numerous revisions to training, military education and regulations that would be needed.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a Democrat and former Navy secretary who voted to advance the bill, said he received written confirmation from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the repeal would have “a sequenced implementation of the provisions for different units in the military.”
Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Congress to repeal the policy so the Defense Department could make the change without a sudden intervention by the courts. A federal trial judge in September ruled the ban unconstitutional and the case is under appeal.
Final approval of the repeal measure seemed assured after today’s procedural vote, when six Republicans joined Democrats to advance the bill. One Democrat, newly elected Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and three Republicans did not vote.
With enough votes assured to claim victory, Senate Democrats joined gay-rights leaders at a press conference to cheer the expected result later today.
“America made history today,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We are grateful America recognized we should be able to serve our nation openly and honestly.”
Repealing the policy enjoys public support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that 77 percent of Americans say gay and lesbian service members who disclose their sexual orientation should continue serving.
Prospects for passage of the repeal appeared in jeopardy for months. The House had approved repealing the ban in May as part of annual defense legislation that authorizes all military programs.
Saturday’s Senate vote came on a separate version of the repeal passed by the House on Dec. 15. Representative Barney Frank, a gay Democrat from Massachusetts, said the maneuver helped “strip away any excuse” for not voting on the repeal.
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