WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 65-31 Saturday to end the Pentagon's "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays and lesbians in the military, as President Obama declared "it is time to close this chapter in our history."
The vote, which sends the bill to Obama for his signature, not only was a historic triumph for gay rights, but it sets the stage for gays to serve openly in the military for the first time.
It was lauded as "one of those moments in our history when we stepped up and squared our policies with the values this nation was founded," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Obama left no doubt he will push to implement the new policy.
"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," he said. "And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love."
Obama's signature will not mean instant repeal, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates pledged Saturday to move quickly.
"Once this legislation is signed into law by the president, the Department of Defense will immediately proceed with the planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully," he said after the vote.
The effort will be led by Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and himself a retired Marine Corps major general and infantry officer.
Under the legislation, Gates explained, repeal will take effect once the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that implementation of the new policies and regulations written by the department "is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces."
The Pentagon has said it could take up to a year to implement the new policy.
The House of Representatives passed the bill Wednesday, and Saturday, Senate passage was smoothed by a 63-33 vote earlier in the day to limit debate.
On the final vote, eight Republicans — Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, George Voinovich of Ohio, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, John Ensign of Nevada and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine — joined 55 Democrats and two independents in backing the measure.
"There will be high fives all over the liberal bastions of America, and we'll see the talk shows tomorrow, a bunch of people talking about how great it is," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Most of them have never served in the military or maybe not even known someone in the military."
And he said military personnel are contacting him and saying of "don't ask, don't tell," "it isn't broke and don't fix it."
Supporters argued overturning the ban was long overdue.
"It is the right thing to do," Adm. Mullen said after the vote. "No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so. We will be a better military as a result."
Immigration bill dies
In other action, the Senate killed a bill Saturday that would have provided a conditional path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants in a vote that highlighted the dim prospects of getting a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws through Congress over the next two years.
Democrats couldn't muster the 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster on the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which the House of Representatives passed earlier this month.
The Senate's 55-41 vote broke mostly along party lines, though three Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana — voted with the Democrats.
Five Democratic senators — Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana — sided with Republicans. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced his opposition to the bill but missed the vote.
Opponents of comprehensive immigration overhaul rejoiced over the defeat of a measure that they considered an "amnesty" bill rewarding bad behavior and a stalking horse for a liberalization of U.S. immigration laws.
Under the DREAM Act, illegal immigrants younger than 30 who entered the U.S. before age 16, lived here for five years without committing any serious crimes, graduated from high school and attended college or joined the military, would have been eligible for legal residency after meeting other criteria.
Also Saturday, Senate Democrats deflected an initiative by Republicans that would have forced U.S. and Russian negotiators to reopen an arms treaty reducing stockpiles of nuclear warheads.
But the 59-37 vote against an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., indicated the difficulty Obama is having in trying to win Senate ratification of the treaty before a new, more Republican Congress assumes power in January.
Treaties require a two-thirds majority of those voting in the Senate, or 67 votes if all 100 senators vote.
The treaty has received the backing of current and former military and national security officials, as well as former Republican President George H.W. Bush.