Alex Brandon, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — In a historic vote for gay rights, the Senate agreed on Saturday to do away with the military's 17-year ban on openly gay troops and sent President Barack Obama legislation to overturn the Clinton-era policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Obama was expected to sign the bill into law next week, although changes to military policy probably wouldn't take effect for at least several months. Under the bill, the president and his top military advisers must first certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight. After that, the military would undergo a 60-day wait period.
Repeal would mean that, for the first time in American history, gays would be openly accepted by the armed forces and could acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out.
More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law.
"It is time to close this chapter in our history," Obama said in a statement. "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."
The Senate voted 65-31 to pass the bill, with eight Republicans siding with 55 Democrats and two independents in favor of repeal. The House had passed an identical version of the bill, 250-175, earlier this week.
Supporters hailed the Senate vote as a major step forward for gay rights. Many activists hope that integrating openly gay troops within the military will lead to greater acceptance in the civilian world, as it did for blacks after President Harry Truman's 1948 executive order on equal treatment regardless of race in the military.
"The military remains the great equalizer," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "Just like we did after President Truman desegregated the military, we'll someday look back and wonder what took Washington so long to fix it."
Sen. John McCain, Obama's GOP rival in 2008, led the opposition. Speaking on the Senate floor minutes before a crucial test vote, the Arizona Republican acknowledged he couldn't stop the bill. He blamed elite liberals with no military experience for pushing their social agenda on troops during wartime.
"They will do what is asked of them," McCain said of service members. "But don't think there won't be a great cost."
How the military will implement a change in policy, and how long that will take remains unclear. Senior Pentagon officials have said the new policy could be rolled out incrementally, service by service or unit by unit.
In a statement issued immediately after the vote, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he will begin the certification process immediately. But any change in policy won't come until after careful consultation with military service chiefs and combatant commanders, he said.
"Successful implementation will depend upon strong leadership, a clear message and proactive education throughout the force," he said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he welcomes the change.
"No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so," he said. "We will be a better military as a result."
Sen. Carl Levin, a chief proponent of repeal, said he has received a commitment from the administration that it won't drag its heels.
"We hope it will be sooner, rather than later," he said.
The fate of "don't ask, don't tell" had been far from certain earlier this year when Obama called for its repeal in his State of the Union address. Despite strong backing from liberals in Congress, Republicans and conservative Democrats remained skeptical that lifting the ban could be done quickly without hurting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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