The Senate voted decisively Saturday to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law, beginning the process of ending a 17-year ban on gays serving openly in the military and reversing decades of official military policy.
In a statement, President Obama praised the procedural vote earlier in the day that allowed for Saturday's historic passage: "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."
The president will sign the bill next week, the White House said after the final vote.
As recently as this morning, Obama was calling wavering senators to ensure the bill's passage, a White House official said. Saturday's successful vote delivered a significant victory for Obama, who promised during his 2008 campaign to end the ban during his presidency.
Supporters of the repeal celebrated Saturday's votes, drawing parallels to the military's decision to end racial segregation in the 1950s and the admission of women to military service academies in the 1970s.
"This is the defining civil rights initiative of this decade," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group established shortly after Clinton authorized the gay ban. "Congress has taken an extraordinary step on behalf of men and women who've been denied their rightful integrity for too long."
The votes came amid an unusually busy Saturday for the Senate, which is also debating the New START Treaty and an immigration bill, known as the DREAM Act, which failed a procedural vote. Nonetheless, it was a banner day for Senate Democrats and, to some extent, for bipartisanship.
"This is one of the days where you really feel privileged to be in the U.S. Senate," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the bill's lead sponsor. "There's been a lot of difficult times the last couple of years because it's so partisan to get anything done. But here we are, it came together. And it was bipartisan; we wouldn't have done it without the Republicans. We got something really good done. So I feel good about it."
Ahead of the historic vote, senators laid out their positions for and against ending the ban.
"They will do what is asked of them," McCain said of service members. "But don't think there won't be a great cost."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) saw it differently. "As Barry Goldwater said, 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight,'" he said, referring to the late GOP senator from Arizona.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who stayed in Washington this weekend for the vote despite needing surgery for early stage prostate cancer, said "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. You ought to be able to serve."
The law struck down Saturday marks the end of decades of military policy prohibiting gay men and lesbians from serving openly in uniform. The Defense Department concluded during the Reagan administration that homosexuality was incompatible with military service and nearly 17,000 troops were discharged during the 1980s for being gay, according to a 1992 Government Accountability Office report.
In an attempt to make good on a campaign pledge, Bill Clinton sought a change to the policy at the start of his presidency, but faced stiff resistance from top military advisers, Congress and the American public.
Months later, Clinton signed a law implementing the policy officially known as "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue," first proposed by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who opposed allowing gays to serve openly. Citing a shift in public opinion, Nunn said this month that he now supports ending the ban.
The procedural vote that made the repeal possible passed by 63 to 33. Fifty-seven members of the Senate Democratic caucus and six Republicans -- Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) -- voted yes. Four senators -- Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) -- were not present and did not vote.
Supporters of the repeal celebrated Saturday's votes, drawing parallels to the military's decision to end racial segregation in the 1950s. Among those celebrating with the jubilant Sen. Lieberman was Eric Alva, who lost a leg to a landmine during the Iraq war. A 13-year Marine veteran, Alva was not discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," but disclosed his homosexuality four years ago and has fought to end the ban ever since.
After a press conference Saturday, Alva pulled Lieberman aside and volunteered to help the Pentagon conduct sensitivity training with troops concerned about ending the ban.
"They're going to get over it," Lieberman told Alva, adding, "God bless you."
Under "don't ask, don't tell," more than 13,000 men and women have been discharged from the military because of their sexuality. The policy was the result of a compromise between Bill Clinton and
Even if the bill is passed this weekend, the ban on gays in the military does not end immediately, and military officials and activists continue to warn that gay men and lesbians serving in uniform should not make public declarations of their sexual orientation until the law is officially repealed.
According to the legislation, the issue would rest entirely with Obama and top military leaders, who must inform Congress in writing that they have reviewed the findings of a Pentagon study regarding an end to the ban and that the Defense Department has drafted the policies and regulations necessary to stop enforcing it. Those changes must not impact troop readiness, cohesion or military recruitment and retention, according to the law.
Once the written notice is submitted, 60 days must elapse before "don't ask, don't tell" is officially repealed. During the two-month window, lawmakers are likely to hold hearings to review the Pentagon's policies and procedures for accepting openly gay and lesbian troops, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.
The White House and Pentagon will not set a specific timetable on ending the ban, and stress it will occur only after Gates and Mullen believe the military is ready to end enforcement.
The speed of implementation could be influenced by members of the gay community, who warn privately that they will be less generous with their time and money if Obama is seen as prolonging the inevitable repeal.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, called on Gates to immediately end investigations of troops in violation of "don't ask, don't tell."
"Until the President signs the bill, until there is certification, and until the 60-day Congressional period is over, no one should be investigated or discharged under this discriminatory law," Sarvis said.
Gates is not expected to immediately halt the investigations, according to Pentagon official unauthorized to speak for the record.
Close military observers anticipate that the ease of ending the ban will vary widely among the different military branches and that the Pentagon may stagger implementation of the change across the military branches.
Combat Marines are especially concerned about the possibility of serving alongside openly gay colleagues, and Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine commandant, has suggested that allowing gays to serve openly in the military could result in deadly distractions. Several Republican senators cited Amos's concerns Saturday before voting against the bill.
"There will be plenty more skirmishes on this issue. This issue has been full of them," said Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group close to the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats. " We won't agree with everything the Pentagon has to say, as well we shouldn't."
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said Saturday that "open service needs to be in place," before his group drops its legal suit challenging the law. In the meantime, "we will continue to push for the constitutional rights of service members by any means necessary," Cooper said.
Eventual repeal may also allow previously discharged troops who violated the ban to reenlist. Michael Almy, 40, a former Air Force major, is among those eager to once again wear a military uniform.
"I can't wait to be a part of it again," Almy said Saturday.
Staff writer Felicia Sonmez contributed to this story.