After months of fits and starts, a bill repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the ban against gays serving openly in the military, passed the Senate 65 to 31 on Saturday.
Eight Republicans -- Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Ensign of Nevada, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and George Voinovich of Ohio -- joined 57 members of the Democratic caucus in support of the historic
measure. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) did not vote Saturday, but released a statement saying he could not support repeal "at this time."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama will sign the bill this week.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the lead Senate sponsor of the bill, framed the issue as a civil rights imperative, calling the ban on gays in the military "inconsistent with basic American values."
"To force the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on the military is to force them to be less than they want to be -- and less than they can be," Lieberman said Saturday. "These people simply want to serve their country." Under the Clinton-era policy, armed services members are expected to keep their sexual orientation private, with the promise that recruiters and officers will not delve into their personal lives.
President Obama applauded the Senate and said "thousands of patriotic Americans" would no longer have to "live a lie" to serve in the military.
During the debate Saturday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was alarmed by the number of Arabic and Farsi linguists who had been discharged under the policy at a time the military needs them most, noting that nearly 10,000 of the 14,000 men and women forced out since 1993 were language specialists.
"I don't care who you love. If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you should be able to serve as you are," Wyden said. "Today the Senate has the opportunity to be on the right side of history. 'Don't ask, don't tell' is a wrong that should never have been perpetrated."
At a congressional hearing earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen testified that lifting the DADT policy would likely have only a limited impact on the services. They said they preferred congressional action -- which would give the military some time to implement the change -- to a judicial decision, which would alter the policy immediately.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, cited that testimony, as well as the results of a Pentagon study on implementing the change, as the reasons he believed ending the policy that bans gays from serving openly is the right thing to do.
"The final report of a working group concluded that changing the policy would present a low risk to the military's effectiveness, even during a time of war, and that 70 percent believe it would be positive, mixed or no effect," Levin said. "The troops told us that what matters is doing the job."
But several Republicans on the Armed Services panel disagreed with Levin and stood up Saturday to vocally oppose changing the policy.
Sen. John McCain, a former Navy flier and POW during the Vietnam war, had filibustered the repeal bill throughout the year. Yet he said he was resigned to the fact that it would pass an earlier test vote Saturday.
But McCain (R-Ariz.) said he remained convinced that repealing the ban would cost American lives.
"I understand the other side's argument about their social political agenda, but to somehow argue that ['don't ask, don't tell'] has harmed our military is not consistent with the facts," he said.
Although McCain said he was confident that the military will comply with a change in the law, he warned that troops will be put at greater risk as a result. "They will do what is asked of them, but don't think it won't be at great cost," he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a JAG officer in the Air Force Reserves, excoriated the bill's proponents for pushing forward with the change when the military is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You care more about politics...than you care about governing this country," Graham said.
Now that the bill has passed the House and Senate, it goes to Obama to be signed into law some time next week.
But a change in the law will not automatically change the policy
. Rather, the bill stipulates that the policy will only be discarded after the president, the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that changing it will not hurt the armed services' readiness, morale or cohesion. After a 60-day review by Congress, the Pentagon is to develop procedures for ending it altogether, a process that could take months or years to complete.
Sen. Levin said he would be watching the military carefully as the certification and implementation process moves forward. But he could not yet say how long would be too long.
"I just think we'll know it when we see it," Levin told Politics Daily. "But right now we've got to just be optimistic and be confident, particularly with these leaders." Levin credited Mullen's early support of repeal for giving the legislative process momentum when it needed it most.
"I don't have any doubt that he is going to be pushing this quickly and at the appropriate speed and in the appropriate way," Levin said. "This is a totally doable deal."
Sen. Collins told Politics Daily that she expects it to take months, not years, but said that the military needs time to create and hold training sessions for servicemembers and to work through any issues associated with the implementation.
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), an early advocate for repeal this year, said Congressional passage of the bill makes one immediate change in military policy.
"No one will be dismissed under this policy ever again," she said.