Legislation to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” is now headed to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature after a historic vote in the U.S. Senate Saturday that seemed highly improbable just weeks earlier. In their second vote of the day, senators voted 65-31 Saturday afternoon to approve a stand-alone bill ending the military’s 17-year-old ban on lesbians and gays serving openly in the military.
The outcome of that vote was a foregone conclusion after the chamber surmounted a much greater hurdle that morning when senators voted 63-33 – overcoming a 60-vote threshold – to advance the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the same piece of legislation earlier this week.
The vote was a major win for LGBT equality advocates but it was also seen as a win for the White House, which has been trying to mend its relationship with the progressive base that helped put Obama in office. White House aides, including Jim Messina, Valerie Jarrett, Brian Bond, Tina Tchen, and Shin Inouye watched the historic vote from inside the Senate gallery.
A senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity called the scene at the Vice President’s office right near the Senate gallery “pandemonium” just after the first successful vote.
“The president called very thrilled,” said the official, adding that Obama “worked the phones” right up until the vote. “It was a significant win, and this is one that the president wanted very very much. This is one of the most significant civil rights votes in history.”
President Obama issued a statement saying it was "time to close this chapter" in the nation's history.
"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," he said. "It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly."
The stand-alone bill was a last-ditch effort to pass repeal before the next Congress, when the bill would have almost surely been dead for two years with the House in Republican hands. House majority leader Steny Hoyer and Pennsylvania representative Patrick Murphy cosponsored the legislation in the House. Senators Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, and Mark Udall were the Senate cosponsors.
Eight Republicans joined Democrats in the final vote to end the ban: senators Scott Brown, Susan Collins, Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski, Olympia Snowe, George Voinovich, John Ensign, and Richard Burr. Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia was absent for both votes.
Sen. Lieberman said from the floor that open service was not a liberal or conservative ideal, a Republican or Democratic ideal, but an American ideal.
“It’s time to right a wrong and put the military in line with the best of American values,” Lieberman said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and is scheduled to undergo surgery early next week, said he felt an urgency to be present for the weekend vote.
“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,” Wyden said from the floor.
In a final act of protest before the vote, Sen. John McCain called it “a very sad day” and imagined that a successful vote would lead to “high fives all over the liberal bastions of America.”
“I hope that when we pass this legislation,” McCain said, “that we will understand that we are doing great damage, and we could possibly, and probably, as the commandant of the Marine Corps said ... harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”
Exuberant reactions from groups that have
worked to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" was immediate. "This vote
represents an historic step forward for this country, and it will very
likely be a life-changing moment for gay and lesbian troops," said
Servicemembers United executive director Alex Nicholson.
But pro-repeal groups cautioned against any gay service members coming out until a change to the policy is fully implemented, however.
lesbian, and bisexual service members posted around the world are
standing a little taller today, but they’re still very much at risk
because repeal is not final," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Advocates also anticipated repeal would have an impact far beyond affecting those who serve in the military.
vote by the United States Senate will have extremely positive ripple
effects well beyond ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’" said Human Rights Campaign
president Joe Solmonese. "Our government has sent a powerful message
that discrimination, on any level, should not be tolerated."
Log Cabin Republicans, which put pressure on legislative repeal by
winning a decisive victory in federal district court against "don't ask,
don't tell" in September, praised the eight Republican senators who
voted in favor of repeal.
Collins, in particular, has long been the point of the spear in
fighting for repeal among Republicans," Log Cabin executive director R.
Clarke Cooper said. "She showed tremendous leadership in crossing the
aisle to make this vote happen, continuing the fight when many thought
hope was lost."
significant as the day was, the ban will still remain in place until
repeal is certified by the president, secretary of Defense, and the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs. A 60-day waiting period follows
In a post-vote press
conference, both Reid and Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed
Services Committee, said they supported placing an immediate suspension
on all investigations and discharges under the policy.
said he did not anticipate the military would drag its feet on
implementation since "the leadership" very clearly supports the change.
was not something that was forced on them by Congress," Levin said.
"This is something that they put very pointedly in front of us when we
had our first hearing. This is something the men and women in uniform —
70% of them — said, 'get it done.'"
Leiberman agreed with Levin, saying he expected certification and implementation would be a matter of months.
"It's going to be months not years," Lieberman said after the votes.
two biggest surprises of the day were the votes from senators John Ensign
of Nevada and Richard Burr of North Carolina, but especially Burr.
Senator Collins, who was instrumental in lobbying her GOP colleagues on repeal, called Burr's move both "gutsy" and surprising.
"I was delighted, but he was not someone who I had thought to lobby on the issue," said Collins.
Below is the full statement the White House issued from President Barack Obama:
the Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that
undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that
our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend. 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. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie
in order to serve the country they love.
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. And I join the
Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as
well as the overwhelming majority of service members asked by the
Pentagon, in knowing that we can responsibly transition to a new policy
while ensuring our military strength and readiness.
"I want to
thank Majority Leader Reid, Senators Lieberman and Collins and the
countless others who have worked so hard to get this done. It is time to
close this chapter in our history. 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. It is time to allow
gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly. I urge the
Senate to send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law."