Senate advances bill to lift military gay ban

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, walks near the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010, during a rare Saturday session to finish the year's legislative business. The Senate voted to advance legislation that would overturn the military ban on openly gay troops known as "don't ask, don't tell." (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, walks near the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010, during a rare Saturday session to finish the year’s legislative business. The Senate voted to advance legislation that would overturn the military ban on openly gay troops known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — In a landmark vote for gay rights, the Senate on Saturday voted to advance legislation that would overturn the military ban on openly gay troops known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The 63-33 test vote all but guarantees the legislation will pass the Senate, possibly by day’s end, and reach the president’s desk before the new year.

The House had passed an identical version of the bill, 250-174, earlier this week.

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.

A gay rights supporter watches a press conference on the House vote to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010. Congress is one step away from ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military, with the Senate ready for a landmark vote that could deliver a major victory to the homosexual community, liberals and President Obama. (AP Photo/File)

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A gay rights supporter watches a press conference on the House vote ... more >

Rounding up a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was a historic victory for President Obama, who made repeal of the 17-year-old policy 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 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, referring to the late GOP senator from Arizona.

Even after the measure were to become law, the policy change wouldn’t go into effect right away. Mr. Obama and his military advisers would have to certify that the change wouldn’t hurt the ability of troops to fight, and there would also be a 60-day waiting period.

Some have predicted the process could take as long as a year before the Bill Clinton-era policy is repealed.

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s GOP rival in 2008, led the opposition. Speaking on the Senate floor minutes before the vote, the Arizona Republican acknowledged he didn’t have the votes to 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,” Mr. McCain said of service members. “But don’t think there won’t be a great cost.”

In the end, enough GOP senators broke with their party 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.

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