Legislation to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” is headed to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature after a historic vote in the U.S. Senate Saturday that seemed highly improbable just weeks earlier. In the second vote of the day, the Senate voted 65-31 Saturday afternoon to approve a stand-alone bill ending the military’s 17-year-old ban on lesbians and gays serving openly in the military. The outcome of that vote was a foregone conclusion after the chamber surmounted a much greater procedural hurdle that morning when senators voted 63-33 to proceed to the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives had passed the same piece of legislation earlier this week.
The stand-alone bill was a last-ditch effort to pass repeal before the next Congress, when the bill would have almost surely been dead for two years with the House in Republican hands. House majority leader Steny Hoyer and Pennsylvania representative Patrick Murphy cosponsored the legislation in the House. Sens. Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, and Mark Udall were the Senate cosponsors.
President Barack Obama reportedly made last-minute phone calls to help secure the final votes. "We understand he has been on the phone with key senators and working closely with those at the Pentagon these final hours," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting to end the ban: Sens. Scott Brown, Susan Collins, Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski, Olympia Snowe, and George Voinovich. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was absent for the vote.
Sen. Lieberman said from the floor that open service was not a liberal or conservative ideal, a Republican or Democratic ideal, but an American ideal.
“It’s time to right a wrong and put the military in line with the best of American values,” Lieberman said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and is scheduled to undergo surgery early next week, said he felt an urgency to be present for the weekend vote.
“I don't care who you love, if you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn't have to hide who you are,” Wyden said.
In a final act of protest, Sen. John McCain called it “a very sad day” and imagined that a successful vote would lead to “high fives all over the liberal bastions of America.”
“I hope that when we pass this legislation,” McCain said, “that we will understand that we are doing great damage, and we could possibly, and probably, as the commandant of the Marine Corps said … harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”
Exuberant reaction from groups that have worked to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" was immediate. "This vote represents an historic step forward for this country, and it will very likely be a life-changing moment for gay and lesbian troops," said Servicemembers United executive director Alex Nicholson.
Advocates also cautioned against any gay service members coming out until a change to the policy is fully implemented, however.
“Gay, lesbian and bisexual service members posted around the world are standing a little taller today, but they’re still very much at risk because repeal is not final," Sarvis of SLDN said.
The Log Cabin Republicans, which put pressure on legislative repeal by winning a decisive victory in federal district court against "don't ask, don't tell" in September, praised the six Republican senators who voted in favor of repeal: Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Mark Kirk of Illiniois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, George Voinovich of Ohio, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.
"Senator Collins, in particular, has long been the point of the spear in fighting for repeal among Republicans," Log Cabin executive director R. Clarke Cooper said. "She showed tremendous leadership in crossing the aisle to make this vote happen, continuing the fight when many thought hope was lost."
UPDATE: The White House has issued the following statement from President Obama on Saturday's Senate vote to proceed on DADT repeal:
"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. 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. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.
"As Commander-in-Chief, I am also absolutely convinced that making this change will only underscore the professionalism of our troops as the best led and best trained fighting force the world has ever known. And I join the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the overwhelming majority of service members asked by the Pentagon, in knowing that we can responsibly transition to a new policy while ensuring our military strength and readiness.
"I want to thank Majority Leader Reid, Senators Lieberman and Collins and the countless others who have worked so hard to get this done. It is time to close this chapter in our history. 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. I urge the Senate to send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law."