WASHINGTON — The Senate on Saturday struck down the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, bringing to a close a 17-year struggle over a policy that forced thousands of Americans from the ranks and caused others to keep secret their sexual orientation.
By a vote of 65 to 31, with eight Republicans joining Democrats, the Senate approved and sent to President Obama a repeal of the Clinton-era law, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy critics said amounted to government-sanctioned discrimination that treated gay and lesbian troops as second-class citizens.
Mr. Obama hailed the action, which fulfills his pledge to reverse the ban. “As commander in chief, 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,” Mr. Obama said in a statement after the Senate, on a 63-33 vote, beat back Republican efforts to block a final vote on the repeal bill.
The vote marked a historic moment that some equated with the end of racial segregation in the military.
It followed a comprehensive review by the Pentagon that found a low risk to military effectiveness despite greater concerns among some combat units and the Marine Corps. The review also found that Pentagon officials supported Congressional repeal as a better alternative than an court-ordered end.
Supporters of the repeal said it was long past time to end what they saw as an ill-advised practice that cost valuable personnel and forced troops to lie to serve their country.
“We righted a wrong,” said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut who led the effort to end the ban. “Today we’ve done justice.”
Before voting on the repeal, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants who came to the United States at a young age, completed two years of college or military service and met other requirements including passing a criminal background check.
The 55-41 vote in favor of the citizenship bill was five votes short of the number needed to clear the way for final passage of what is known as the Dream Act. The outcome effectively kills it for this year, and its fate beyond that is uncertain since Republicans who will assume control of the House in January oppose the measure and are unlikely to bring it to a vote.
The Senate then moved on to the military legislation, engaging in an emotional back and forth over the merits of the measure as advocates for repeal watched from galleries crowded with people interested in the fate of both the military and immigration measures. “I don’t care who you love,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the debate opened. “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”
Mr. Wyden showed up for the Senate vote despite saying earlier that he would be unable to do so because he would be undergoing final tests before his scheduled surgery for prostate cancer on Monday.
The vote came in the final days of the 111th Congress as Democrats sought to force through a final few priorities before they turn over control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans in January and see their clout in the Senate diminished.
It represented a significant victory for the White House, Congressional advocates of lifting the ban and activists who have pushed for years to end the Pentagon policy created in 1993 under the Clinton administration as a compromise effort to end the practice of banning gay men and lesbians entirely from military service. Saying it represented an emotional moment for members of the gay community nationwide, activists who supported repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” exchanged hugs outside the Senate chamber after the vote.
“Today’s vote means gay and lesbian service members posted all around the world can stand taller knowing that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will soon be coming to an end,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
The executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group that challenged the policy in federal court, thanked Republicans senators for participating in a historic vote. The director, R. Clarke Cooper, who is a member of the Army Reserve, said repeal will “finally end a policy which has burdened our armed services for far too long, depriving our nation of the talent, training and hard won battle experience of thousands of patriotic Americans. ”
A federal judge had ruled the policy unconstitutionial in response to the Log Cabin suit, but that decision had been stayed pending appeal.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center in California, a research institute at the University of California in Santa Barbara that studies issues surrounding gays and lesbians in the military, said that the vote “ushers in a new era in which the largest employer in the United States treats gays and lesbians like human beings.”
In a statement on the group’s website, Mr. Belkin said: “It has long been clear that there is no evidence that lifting the ban will undermine the military, and no reason to fear the transition to inclusive policy. Research shows that moving quickly is one of the keys to a successful transition. If the President and military leadership quickly certify the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ they will ensure an orderly transition with minimal disruption.”
Organizations that opposed repeal of the ban assailed the Republican senators who defied their party majority.
The Center for Military Readiness, a group that specializes in social issues in the military and has opposed repeal, said the new legislation “will impose heavy, unnecessary burdens on the backs of military men and women.” It said the Senate majority voted with “needless haste” by not waiting for hearings into a recent Department of Defense study of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Elaine Donnelly, president of the group, said that the Pentagon’s survey indicated that 32 percent of Marines and 21.4 percent of Army combat troops would leave the military sooner than planned if “don’t ask, don’t tell” were repealed.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said senators like Scott Brown, a Republican from Massachusetts, “broke trust with the people” by voting on repeal before the federal budget was resolved and “have put the troops at risk during wartime.”
During the debate, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and his party’s presidential candidate in 2008, led the opposition to the repeal and said the vote was a sad day in history. “I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage,” Mr. McCain said. “And we could possibly and probably, as the commandant of the Marine Corps said, and as I have been told by literally thousands of members of the military, harm the battle effectiveness vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”
He and other opponents of lifting the ban said the change could harm the unit cohesion that is essential to effective military operations, particularly in combat, and deter some Americans from enlisting or pursuing a career in the military. They noted that despite support for repealing the ban from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other military commanders have warned that changing the practice would prove disruptive.
“This isn’t broke,” Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said about the policy. “It is working very well.”
Other Republicans said that while the policy might need to be changed at some point, Congress should not do so when American troops are fighting overseas.
“In the middle of a military conflict, is not the time to do it,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia.
Only a week ago, the effort to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy seemed to be dead and in danger of fading for at least two years with Republicans about to take control of the House. The provision eliminating the ban was initially included in a broader Pentagon policy bill, and Republican backers of repeal had refused to join in cutting off a filibuster against the underlying bill because of objections over the ability to debate the measure.
In a last-ditch effort, Mr. Lieberman and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a key Republican opponent of the ban, encouraged Democratic Congressional leaders to instead pursue a vote on simply repealing it. The House passed the measure earlier in the week.
The repeal will not take effect for at least 60 days while some other procedural steps are taken. In addition, the bill requires the defense secretary to determine that policies are in place to carry out the repeal “consistent with military standards for readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.”
Because of the uncertainty, Mr. Sarvis appealed to Mr. Gates to suspend any investigations into military personnel or discharge proceedings under the policy to be overturned in the coming months.
Mr. Lieberman said the ban undermined the integrity of the military by forcing troops to lie. He said 14,000 members of the armed forces had been forced to leave the ranks under the policy.
“What a waste,” he said.
The fight erupted in the early days of President Bill Clinton’s administration and has been a roiling political issue ever since. Mr. Obama endorsed repeal in his own campaign and advocates saw the current Congress as their best opportunity for ending the ban. Dozens of advocates of ending the ban — including one wounded in combat before being forced from the military — watched from the Senate gallery as the debate took place.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, dismissed Republican complaints that Democrats were trying to race through the repeal to satisfy their political supporters.
“I’m not here for partisan reasons,” Mr. Levin said. “I’m here because men and women wearing the uniform of the United States who are gay and lesbian have died for this country, because gay and lesbian men and women wearing the uniform of this country have their lives on the line right now.”
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader and a crucial proponent of the repeal, noted that some Republicans had indicated they might try to block Senate approval of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia because of their pique over the Senate action on the ban.
“How’s that’s for statesmanship?” Mr. Reid said.