The campaign to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," which bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military, gained a historic victory today with the Senate voting to end the policy and send the bill to President Obama's desk.
Sixty-five Senators, including six Republicans, voted in favor of the measure. The House approved repeal earlier this week.
Passage of the bill to end "don't ask, don't tell" is a major victory for Obama, who has promised to end the 17-year-old law and had come under intense pressure from gay rights groups to do so before Republicans take control of the House in January.
"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," Obama said in a statement hailing the historic Senate vote.
Still, advocates cautioned that gay and lesbian service members will not be immediately allowed to serve openly and could still face disciplinary action for revealing their sexual orientation.
The legislative repeal gives military leadership control of a timetable for implementing the change, stipulating that it can only occur after the president, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Congress "certify" the military is ready. After certification, there would be a 60-day grace period before it takes effect.
"Gay, lesbian and bisexual service members posted around the world are standing a little taller today," said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, "but they're still very much at risk because repeal is not final ... Certification and the 60-day Congressional requirement must be wrapped up no later than the first quarter of 2011. The bottom line: for now, gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members must remain cautiously closeted."
The groups says more than 13,500 service members have been discharged from the military under the 1993 law.
In the hours before today's vote, Senate Democrats vehemently argued that it was long past time that the policy come to an end.
"The existing 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is inconsistent with basic American values," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who introduced the stand-alone bill in Congress last week after Senate Democrats failed in an attempt to pass the repeal attached to the annual defense authorization bill.
"If you care about national security, if you care about our military readiness, then you will repeal this corrosive policy," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.
But Senate Republicans argued that implementing a repeal during a time of military conflict was a mistake.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, an outspoken opponent of repeal, dismissed a Pentagon study supportive of the change and said he believed ending the policy would harm the troops.
"If it isn't broke, then don't fix it," he said of the policy. "All this talk that it's a civil rights issue and equality -- the fact is the military has the highest recruitment and retention in its history. That it's harmed our military is not supported by the facts ... We are doing great damage, and we are possibly and probably ... harming the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the support of the men and women of the military."
A Pentagon study released earlier this month found that there would be minimal risk to military effectiveness in enacting a repeal.
Fifty to 55 percent of those surveyed said the repeal wouldn't have any effect, 15 to 20 percent said it would have a positive effect and 30 percent said the effect would be negative. The report also concluded that encounters with gay service members are common.
Obama, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Gates have all called for a repeal of the policy.
Four GOP senators today voted in favor of repeal -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found 77 percent of Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military, the largest show of support in the history of the policy.