WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate was headed toward a landmark vote Saturday on legislation that would let gays serve openly in the military, testing waning opposition among Republicans and putting Democrats within striking distance of overturning "don't ask, don't tell."
Passage would be a historic victory for President Barack Obama, who made repeal of the 17-year-old law a campaign promise in 2008. It also would be a political win for congressional Democrats who have struggled repeatedly in the final hours of the lame-duck session to overcome Republican objections.
A procedural vote was expected by noon. If at least 60 senators vote to advance the bill as expected, the legislation could pass as early as late afternoon. Republicans could demand extended debate time, but early indications were that they may not draw the process out further.
Gay rights groups said Saturday's vote was their best shot at changing the law because a new GOP-dominated Congress will take control in January.
Despite signs the bill was close to passage, advocates vowed to leave nothing up to chance and stepped up lobbying efforts in the hours before the vote, including a silent protest in the visitor seats overlooking the Senate floor.
"We simply cannot let the clock run out and lose this historic opportunity," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, whose supporters vowed to sit in the Senate gallery until the law was repealed.
"If senators support repeal they will vote yes. No more excuses," Sarvis said.
Repeal would mean that, for the first time in U.S. 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.
Under the bill, the president and his top military advisers — the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — are required to certify to Congress that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight. After that, 60 days must pass before any changes go into effect.
The House approved the bill earlier this week by a 250-174 vote. Senate passage would send the bill to the president's desk.
The bill appeared all but dead earlier this month when Senate Republicans voted for a second time this year to block the measure on procedural grounds. The measure was tucked into a broader defense policy bill that many GOP senators said required more debate time than Democrats would allow. They also objected to taking up any legislation before addressing tax cuts and government spending.
The GOP's united front pleased a small but vocal group of Republicans led by Sen. John McCain, who said the law shouldn't be changed during wartime.
"We send these young people into combat," said McCain, R-Ariz. "We think they're mature enough to fight and die. I think they're mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness."
In recent days, Senate Democrats were able to address many of the procedural objections, including a vote to pass tax cuts legislation. They also stripped the repeal provision from the defense policy bill.
The Democratic push for repeal was also strengthened by the release of a major Pentagon study that concluded gays could serve openly without affecting combat effectiveness. The assessment found that two-thirds of troops predicted little impact if the law is repealed.
The study was strongly backed by the Pentagon's top leadership, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.
McCain has dismissed the study as flawed and cites concern among troops assigned to the front lines. Some troops predicted openly gay troops would cause problems. Most of them were in combat arms units such as infantry and special operations.
The chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps warned Congress that repeal could pose serious problems if the law is overturned when troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.
Gen. James Amos, the head of the Marine Corps, has become the most outspoken opponent and claims letting gay troops serve openly could cost lives.
Gates and Mullen say this fear is overblown. They note the Pentagon's finding that 92 percent of troops who believe they have served with a gay person saw no impact on their units' morale or effectiveness.
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