WASHINGTON–The Senate voted decisively on Saturday to overturn the Pentagon’s ban on gays serving openly in the military, ending an emotionally-charged, decades-long debate over what role a person’s sexual orientation should play in their military service.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who led the fight to repeal the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and other proponents cleared the toughest hurdle during a critical morning vote. They won 63 votes to overcome a threatened Republican-led filibuster.
Six Republicans voted to limit debate on the repeal measure, along with 55 Democrats and the chamber’s two independents, including Lieberman. That tally cleared the path for final passage just a few hours later, by a vote of 65 to 31.
The Senate’s action represented a remarkable turnabout for the legislation, which had suffered several near-fatal blows in this Congress only to be revived in the closing days of a tumultuous lame-duck session.
Opponents decried the action as a rushed and ill-advised political gambit that could harm military effectiveness and undermine troop morale. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it a “sad day” and suggested it would cost the lives of American soldiers.
But advocates were euphoric as they moved toward an all-but-certain victory, saying it would finally end a discriminatory policy that has led to the senseless dismissal of 14,000 qualified American service members.
“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history and a stain on our nation will be lifted forever,” said Joe Solmonese, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. “Today, America lived up to its highest ideals of freedom and equality.”
Former Air Force Major Mike Almy, who was discharged after military officials found personal email disclosing his homosexuality, appeared with Lieberman and other backers of the repeal bill at a news conferencebetween the filibuster vote and final passage of the bill.
He said after a tour in Iraq, “I was thrown out of the Air Force as if I were a common criminal.”
“There’s nothing I want more” than to go back to serving in the military, he said, adding that he and others “just want assurance that they will not be fired for who they are.”
“We righted a wrong,” Lieberman said at the news conference. “It took too long but… today we’ve done justice.”
The bill, which has already passed the House, will now go to the White House, where a supportive President Barack Obama could sign it into law before Christmas.
Saturday’s vote pit Lieberman against his long-time friend and political ally, McCain, who led opposition to repeal.
Because the vote took place on a Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, Lieberman, who is Orthodox, started out for the Senate at 7:30 this morning on foot. He made the 4.5-mile trip in about 90 minutes, accompanied by a Capitol police officer.
During the Senate debate, Lieberman framed his push for repeal as a civil rights battle and a test of America’s commitment to equal opportunity.
“We have an opportunity not just to right a wrong, not just to honor the service of a group of American patriots who happen to be gay and lesbian, not just to make our military more effective, but to advance the values that the founders of our country articulated,” Lieberman said.
“The existing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is inconsistent with basic American values,” Lieberman added. “If you play by the rules and work hard… you should be able to go as far as your talents and your commitment to our country will take you.”
McCain said this wasn’t about civil rights, but about a “social, political agenda” that Democrats were trying to push through the lame-duck session, before Republicans gain strength in the next Congress.
“We are jamming… major issues through the Senate of the United States because [Democrats] know they can’t get it done” come January, McCain said.
“The military has the highest recruitment and highest retention at any time in history,” McCain said. “To allege [DADT] has harmed our military is not justified by the facts… I have heard from thousands, thousands of active duty and retired military personnel and they’re saying ‘Sen. McCain, it isn’t broke and don’t fix it’.”
McCain said that lifting the ban will harm military unit cohesion, erode morale, and possibly even cost soldiers their lives. But he conceded that he did not have the votes to win, saying “there will be high fives all over the liberal bastions of America” with final passage.
He said the military “will do what is asked of them, but don’t think that it won’t be at great cost.”
Saturday’s vote was a sharp reversal of fortunes for the legislation, which just nine days ago fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster. In the wake of that defeat, Lieberman and others changed tack, stripping their proposal from a broader defense authorization bill and pressing for a vote on the narrow issue of repeal.
That strategy won fresh support from six Senate Republicans, five of whom voted “no” just days ago, including Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
DADT was put into place in 1993, with a law mandating the discharge of any openly gay, lesbian or bisexual members of the U.S. armed forces. In the ensuing years, more than 14,000 service members have been dismissed from the military.
Even after Obama signs the bill into law, the policy will not end immediately. Under Lieberman’s bill, proposal would only take affect after the Pentagon and the president certifies that the change would not have any negative impact on the troops.
Proponents say that will give military leaders time to conduct education and training sessions, ensuring a smooth process.
“It’s a very reasonable process and saves the military from facing an order from the courts to do this immediately,” Lieberman said.
Senate leaders said the timeline for implementation of the repeal’s implementation is uncertain, but military officials have previously said it could take six to nine months. In the meantime, Harry Reid, D-Nev., and others called for an immediate suspension of all current investigations and discharge proceedings initiated under DODT.
Asked how the battle would affect his relationship with McCain, Lieberman noted that while they been on opposing sides of many other issues, their previous political disagreements had not been so direct or so high-profile.
Still, “I don’t think this will leave any scars,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Asked whether it would have an impact on his re-election decision, Lieberman said, “This is one of those days where you really feel privileged to be in the Senate… We got something really good done.”
So does it make him want to stay, or is it a good note to retire on?
“I think it’s a separate event,” he said.