WASHINGTON --- In a landmark vote that for some echoed the nation's greatest civil-rights struggles, the Senate on Saturday moved resolutely to abolish the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which for 17 years has forced gay and lesbian members of the armed forces to keep their sexual orientation hidden.
The 65-31 vote, which came after a charged and sometimes vitriolic debate, was surprisingly bipartisan. Eight Republicans joined Democrats in voting to repeal the Clinton-era policy. No Georgia or South Carolina senator backed repeal.
"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," President Obama said Saturday. "It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly."
The drive toward repeal represented a significant -- and somewhat unforeseen -- political victory for Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have struggled to advance their agenda during the final weeks of Congress.
Days earlier, it had appeared that partisan squabbling would scuttle the repeal effort.
Momentum had begun to build anew after testimony earlier in the month by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, both of whom again called for an end to the policy, citing a Pentagon study that said the change would cause little disruption within the ranks of the military.
More than 14,000 members of the armed forces have been discharged since the policy's inception in 1993.
Gates cautioned Saturday that though Obama is expected to sign the measure next week, repeal will not happen immediately. Under the legislation, the policy can only be altered once new guidelines are put in place that are "consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention," he said.
GOP senators, led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, accused Democrats of pushing the repeal through in the last days of a lame-duck Congress in defiance of the results of November's elections.
"We are jamming -- or trying to jam -- major issues through the Senate of the United States because (Democrats) know they can't get it done beginning next January," McCain said.
"Today is a sad day," he said.
Ironically, McCain's close ally during the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., spearheaded the push for repeal, countering McCain's claims on the Senate floor.
"Allowing people to serve our military regardless of sexual orientation is not a liberal or conservative idea, not a Republican or Democratic idea," said Lieberman, who walked 90 minutes from his home in Washington to the Capitol in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. "It is an American idea consistent with American values."