The Senate Saturday voted to end a longstanding ban on gay troops serving openly in the US armed services -- a move Democrats compare to President Truman's ending the ban on racial segregation in the military in 1948.
"It is time to close this chapter in our history," said President Obama in a statement. "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. It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly."
Six Republicans -- Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and George Voinovich of Ohio -- broke with their party to give Democrats the votes needed to break a GOP filibuster. The measure subsequently passed, 65 to 31. Sens. John Ensign (R) of Nevada and Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina also joined Democrats on the final vote.
The House passed an identical repeal on Wednesday, 250-175, sending the bill to the White House. At least 60 days before the law takes effect, both the President and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have to certify that ending the "don't ask, don't tell" policy won't adversely affect military readiness or morale.
That issue was a major theme in today's Senate debate. The Senate Armed Services Committee held two days of hearings on the final report of a Pentagon working group that reviewed the issue.
Its conclusion was that a repeal of the ban "would present a low risk to the military's effectiveness even during a time of war," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the panel.
"Seventy percent of the surveyed members believe that the impact on their units would be positive, mixed or of no consequence," he added, during Saturday's floor debate. "While combat units expressed more concerns about the consequences of repeal, those concerns disappeared for troops who have worked with a gay or lesbian coworker."
But the top Republican on the panel, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other GOP critics criticized the Pentagon's survey for focusing on implementation of repeal of the ban, not on whether repeal was in fact good policy.
"The Marine Corps Commandant has said he believes that changing this policy this way would cause distraction among the Marine Corps to the point that he is worried about increased casualties," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, citing recent comments by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.
From the Marines I talked to, he simply reflected what members of the Corps are going through," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, a former Marine who voted against repeal, in an interview. "Marines are different. We fight in very close combat units. This is going to result in some very bad situations that could have been avoided, if we had taken it on a step-by-step basis."
Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, also a Marine Corps veteran, responded from the floor, that the issue was not whether there should be gays and lesbians in the military.
"They are already there," he said, adding that the issue is not whether the policy will lead anyone to engage in inappropriate conduct.
"We will not allow that and we will be very vigorous in our oversight of the Department of Defense to make sure that does not occur," he said, noting that the Pentagon has committed to "a sequenced implementation" of the new policy for different units in the military.
Today's vote fulfills a campaign pledge of the last two Democratic presidents.
President Clinton campaigned in 1992 to "lift the ban" on homosexuals serving in the military, but Congress balked. The theme of "gays in the military" also set off a firestorm of protest among some Christian conservative groups, talk radio, and within the military, and it became virtual shorthand for the woes of Clinton's first year in office.
In July 1993, the Clinton administration proposed "don't ask, don't tell," as a compromise policy, which Congress voted into law in November.
But social conservatives have been largely out of the latest fight on repeal of the ban. The activists who lobbied lawmakers outside the Senate chamber today were all human rights activists committed to repeal.
"The conservative groups are not here because they're going to lose," said David Smith, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian civil rights group. "Public attitudes have shifted. There are people on the front lines in combat who know gay and lesbians in the ranks. Eighty percent say there's no problem."