The vote, coming after months of public debate on the merits of ending the exclusion of gays while troops are engaged in combat operations overseas, clears for President Obama's signature a stand-alone bill repealing the controversial 1993 "don't ask don't tell" law.
Earlier in the day, the Senate cleared its biggest hurdle to passing a repeal bill when it voted 63-33 on a procedural motion that required a 60-vote threshold, paving the way for final passage.
Coming three days after the House passed an identical bill repealing the 17-year-old exclusion law, the action by the Senate was a major victory for the White House, congressional Democrats and gay-rights activists, all of whom made it a priority to lift the military's ban on homosexual men and women this year. It also allows Obama to say he's delivered on another promise made during his 2008 campaign for the White House.
"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," Obama said in a statement today. "And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country."
In many respects, today's Senate vote was almost inconceivable over a week ago when repeal advocates failed to get the 60 votes necessary to consider a fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill with the same language ending the ban.
The outlook for repeal also dimmed amid concerns about strong Republican opposition to the repeal provision and the dwindling amount of time left in the lame-duck session to debate such an emotionally charged issue.
After last week's Senate vote, Sens. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a stand-alone repeal bill, which quickly attracted dozens of co-sponsors. House Democrats then introduced and passed a companion bill, having already passed a repeal amendment to the defense authorization bill in May.
Although Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and John Ensign of Nevada voted against cloture, they joined GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, and Mark Kirk of Illinois and Collins in supporting passage of the repeal bill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who last week cited concerns about the repeal language when he became the only Democrat to vote against cloture on the defense bill, did not vote today. Sens. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also did not vote.
"Today, America lived up to its highest ideals of freedom and equality. Congress recognized that all men and women have the right to openly serve their country," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which has lobbied hard for repeal. "Plenty of people had already planned the funeral for this legislation. Today, we pulled out a victory from what was almost certain defeat just a few days ago."
The House and Senate stand-alone bills, like the amendment in the authorization bill, would repeal the law 60 days after the president and the defense secretary certify that doing so would not hurt unit cohesion, troop morale, or military readiness.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., today said he expected Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who supports repealing the law, and military leaders to move quickly on the certification process.
"I'm confident that they're going to move quickly on this," Levin said.