From left, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leave Reid's office to hold a news conference about the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Saturday.
Updated 5:11 p.m.
The Senate gave final approval Saturday to repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Saturday, delivering gay rights advocates a historic victory and sending legislation long in the making to President Barack Obama for a signature.
The bill, which had overcome a crucial procedural hurdle earlier in the day, passed on a 65-31 vote as the Senate scrambled to complete its business before Christmas.
At a press conference after the vote, Sen. Joe Lieberman, who led the repeal effort, declared Saturday to be “one of my best days in my 22 years in the Senate.”
Lieberman told reporters that Obama and his White House aides were involved in the Whip effort over the past week to rally support for the repeal bill. Obama aides Valerie Jarrett and Jim Messina had watched the vote from the Senate gallery.
The repeal effort picked up two new Republican supporters after the earlier vote — Sens. Richard Burr and John Ensign. Ensign is up for re-election in 2012.
Ensign said in a statement that he opposed the procedural vote earlier because Democrats would not allow consideration of amendments.
"[I]t is my firm belief that any American wishing to fight and potentially die for this great country ought to be able to do so regardless of sexual orientation," the Nevada Republican said. "These fine individuals should not have to hide who they are."
In a statement explaining his switch to supporting the repeal, Burr cited the nation's "generational transition."
The North Carolina Republican said while he is concerned the timing is "wrong" given two active wars, "I feel that this policy is outdated and repeal is inevitable ... [R]epealing Don't Ask Don't Tell is the right thing to do."
The Senate failed twice before to advance language repealing the Clinton-era policy, but succeeded Saturday just three days after the House passed the same measure mostly along partisan lines. The vote in the Senate included the support of eight Republicans: Burr, Ensign, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Scott Brown (Mass.), as well as retiring Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) and freshman Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.).
Collins, the leading Republican fighting for repeal, told reporters she figured “six or seven” of her GOP colleagues would vote for the bill. But she said she was “delighted and surprised” Burr voted in favor of repeal.
Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D), who had been expected to vote no, did not attend the vote.
A Manchin spokeswoman told the Charleston Gazette the freshman Senator and his wife had "planned a holiday gathering over a year ago with all their children and grandchildren as they will not all be together on Christmas Day." The spokeswoman noted Manchin opposed the repeal of DADT and said, "While he regrets missing the votes, it was a family obligation that he just could not break."
Also absent from Saturday’s votes were Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and retiring Republican Sens. Jim Bunning (Ky.) and Judd Gregg (N.H.).
The bill would repeal a 1993 law enacted under President Bill Clinton that Democrats have fought for years to end. There have been thousands of discharges under the policy. The Pentagon this month released findings of its survey of active-duty members and their families showing repeal would not harm troop morale or readiness.
The White House released statements from Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who supported the repeal effort.
Gates said once Obama signs the measure, the Pentagon will start planning “to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully.”
"It is therefore important that our men and women in uniform understand that while today's historic vote means that this policy will change, the implementation and certification process will take an additional period of time. In the meantime, the current law and policy will remain in effect,” he said. "Successful implementation will depend upon strong leadership, a clear message and proactive education throughout the force. With a continued and sustained commitment to core values of leadership, professionalism and respect for all, I am convinced that the U.S. military can successfully accommodate and implement this change, as it has others in history."
Mullen said the change means gays and lesbians will no longer need to “sacrifice their integrity” to serve their country, and this will ultimately result in “a better military.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wrote on his Twitter feed that Obama will sign the measure next week. Obama had vowed to repeal DADT during his presidential campaign and made the case strongly for repeal in his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.
“By ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no longer will patriotic Americans be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love,” read the Barack Obama Twitter feed just after the vote.