The House today passed a bill to overturn the military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay members of the armed forces, pressuring the Senate to delay its holiday recess and take the last step to end the policy by voting on the bill.
The 250-175 vote sends the bill to the Senate for what proponents of repeal believe is the last, best chance to end the policy that forces service members from admitting publicly that they are gay.
Next year, Republicans will control the House and command more seats in the Senate, diminishing any likelihood of the ban's repeal.
"It's been a long time coming, but now is the time for us to act," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said shortly before the vote.
"We know our first responsibility as elected officials. We take an oath of office to protect and defend, and our first responsibility is to protect the American people, to keep them safe. We should honor the service of all who want to contribute to that security." Pelosi said.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they are committed to bringing the bill to a a vote before Congress closes for the year. The Senate has many other important issues on its agenda, with just days left in the lame-duck session.
As Democratic lawmakers make their final push, the head of the Marine Corps yesterday said lifting the ban would endanger the lives of troops in the field.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," said Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos. "I don't want to permit that opportunity to happen. And I'll tell you why. If you go up to Bethesda Hospital . . . Marines are up there with no legs, none. We've got Marines at Walter Reed with no limbs."
Other senior military officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support a repeal of the Clinton-era policy.
In May, the House voted in favor of a large defense policy bill that included repealing "don't ask, don't tell." That bill has stalled in the Senate, where Republicans have blocked it on procedural grounds.
Last week the bill failed to get the 60 votes needed to allow for debate, when Republicans again blocked it.
Following the House vote, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said she would support the bill when it came to vote in the Senate, bringing the total number of expected votes to 59. The bill needs 60 votes to pass.
Two Republicans, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have each said they would consider voting for appeal, though they voted against it last week.
A new bill that is focused solely on repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine, and Joe Lieberman, I- Conn. Few believed the bill would get its day on the floor of the Senate, because it would require House approval just as Congress is set to leave for vacation.
The House decision to vote on the stand-alone bill now puts pressure on the Senate to get things done. That will likely require Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to extend the Senate session through this weekend to complete any unfinished business.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.