WASHINGTON – In a landmark vote for gay rights, Sen. Harry Reid and fellow Democrats in the Senate voted Saturday to let gays serve openly in the military, giving President Barack Obama the chance to fulfill a campaign promise and repeal the 17-year policy known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Obama was expected to sign it next week, although the change wouldn't take immediate effect. The legislation says the president and his top military advisers must certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' fighting ability. After that, there's a 60-day waiting period for the military.
Earlier in the day, though, another Democratic initiative failed. Senate Republicans blocked a bill to grant hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children a chance to gain legal status if they enroll in college or join the military.
Sponsors of what they call the Dream Act needed 60 Senate votes for it, but fell five short. The House passed the bill last week. It was a last-ditch effort to enact it before it Republicans take control of the House from Democrats in January.
Immigrant advocates viewed the measure as a step toward providing a path to legal status for up to 12 million illegal immigrants by focusing on the most sympathetic among them first. Critics called it a back-door grant of amnesty that would encourage more illegal immigration.
The failure of the Dream Act was followed by the Senate's 65-31 vote on "don't ask, don't tell." The House had passed an identical version of the bill, 250-175, on Wednesday.
"It is time to close this chapter in our history," Obama said Saturday in a statement after a test vote cleared the way for final action. "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."
Repeal would mean that, for the first time in American history, gays would be openly accepted by the military 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.
Rounding up a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was a historic victory for Obama, who made repeal a campaign promise in 2008. It also was a political triumph for congressional Democrats who struggled in the final hours of the postelection session to overcome GOP objections on several legislative priorities before Republicans regain control of the House in January.
"As Barry Goldwater said, 'You don't have to be straight to shoot straight,'" said Reid, the Senate majority leader, referring to the late GOP senator from Arizona.
Sen. John McCain, Obama's GOP rival in 2008, led the opposition. The Arizona Republican acknowledged he didn't have the votes to stop the bill and 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."
In the end, six GOP senators broke with their party on the procedural vote to let the bill move ahead and swung behind repeal after a recent Pentagon study concluded the ban could be lifted without hurting the ability of troops to fight.
Advocacy groups who lobbied hard for repeal hailed the vote as a significant step forward in gay rights. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network called the issue the "defining civil rights initiative of this decade."
Supporters of repeal filled the visitor seats overlooking the Senate floor, ready to protest had the bill failed.
"This has been a long fought battle, but this failed and discriminatory law will now be history," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
The Pentagon study found that two-thirds of service members didn't think changing the law would have much of an effect. But of those who did predict negative consequences, a majority were assigned to combat arms units. Nearly 60 percent of the Marine Corps and Army combat units, such as infantry and special operations, said in the survey they thought repealing the law would hurt their units' ability to fight.
The Pentagon's uniformed chiefs are divided on whether this resistance might pose serious problems.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos has said he thinks lifting the ban during wartime could cost lives.
"I don't want to lose any Marines to the distraction," he told reporters this week. "I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda (Naval Medical Center) with no legs be the result of any type of distraction."
Adm. Mike Mullen and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, respectively, have said the fear of disruption is overblown. They note the Pentagon's finding that 92 percent of troops who believe they have served with a gay person saw no effect on their units' morale or effectiveness. Among Marines in combat roles who said they have served alongside a gay person, 84 percent said there was no impact.
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