WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted 65-31 on Saturday to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell, defeating a 17-year policy of banning gay and lesbian service members from serving openly in the military. Six Republicans initially crossed the aisle to vote against the policy: Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio).
The Senate vote is a vindication of Obama's decision to push for congressional repeal as opposed to unilateral executive action, though activists note he could have done both.
In the first procedural vote on Saturday morning, 63 senators voted in favor of the bill and 33 against. In the final passage, Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) switched their vote to "aye," despite initially voting against moving forward with the bill.
"The important thing today is that 63 senators were on the right side of history," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told HuffPost after the first vote, adding he sees the bill as a "stepping stone to further advances for the gay and lesbian community."
Gay-rights activists owe a small debt to their Latino brethren, as the DREAM Act, which the House and Senate have been considering at the same time, showed the way forward for repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Roughly a week before a crucial cloture vote failed, said one top aide, Democratic leadership staff saw that the same legislative tactic could be used to bring a standalone version of the repeal bill to the Senate floor as was currently being used to bring DREAM up. For needlessly complex reasons, a bill that comes to the Senate as a "message from the House" faces fewer obstacles to a floor vote than one that originates in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the House consider moving first. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) had the same idea.
"Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins determined that they would introduce a bill," Hoyer told HuffPost earlier this week. "I called and talked to a number of people. I then called Senator Lieberman and said 'Joe, my intent will be to talk to Congressman Murphy' -- who's the sponsor of the amendment that was adopted in the defense bill -- 'and put this in as a free standing bill, because we can probably send it over to you more quickly than you can send to us.' And he agreed and we introduced exactly the same bill that they have in the Senate."
The bill passed in the House 250-175 on Dec. 16.
During debate before the cloture vote, Republicans ran through the usual list of arguments against repealing DADT, claiming it would hurt unit cohesion and that troops had not been given an adequate chance to voice their opinions on the bill. A survey on ending DADT was sent to 400,000 service members, at least 100,000 of whom responded. Of those who responded, 70 percent said they would "work together to get the job done" if there was a gay service member in their unit -- and 69 percent said they know or suspect there is a gay service member serving with them already.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the reason survey results were mostly positive because troops already thought the repeal was "a done deal" because politicians had said they planned to repeal it. Repealing DADT would harm recruitment and retention, he said. "I was shocked at how well this has worked for a long period of time," Inhofe said. "We have a saying in Oklahoma, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Well, this isn't broke, it's working very well."
Republican senators said their opposition was not related to homophobia or lack of appreciation for those who have served or are serving in the military. "This has nothing to do with the gays and lesbians who have given valuable service to our military," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). "That's a given."
Still, they rejected the idea that the military could adjust seamlessly to a more open policy. "Some people will say this is about civil rights and its time has come. The Marine Corps doesn't have that view," Graham said. "This is about effectiveness on the battle field, not about civil rights."
In the end, though, support for a repeal won out. A number of Democrats made impassioned appeals for the bill in the debate. "I can't think of something more egregious to our fabric, to our military," said Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y). "If you care about national security, if you care about military readiness, you will vote against this corrosive policy."
Now, though, Republicans are threatening that the vote will threaten another effort: ratification of the START Treaty, which supporters say would strengthen national security.
"Some Republicans are saying they're not going to vote for the START Treaty now because we had a vote on the DREAM Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) after the vote.
President Barack Obama applauded the Senate for moving toward repeal. "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," he said in a statement. "And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.