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WASHINGTON – In a decision that made history, the Senate voted 65-31 today to repeal the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevents gay and lesbian troops from serving openly.

Only 51 votes were needed for passage. The overwhelming margin of victory stunned most observers as a surprising number of Republicans showed bipartisan support for repeal.

Four senators declined to vote.

The controversial DADT policy was a compromise reached 17 years ago during the term of President Bill Clinton.

The end of DADT is not yet official, and the nation’s estimated 70,000 gay and lesbian troops are advised by legal experts to remain in the closet.

The bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who asked during his State of the Union speech in January for Congress to repeal the DADT policy by year’s end.

After Obama signs the bill, the president along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, must certify that implementing repeal will not harm unit cohesion, recruiting and retention, and that it will not affect military readiness and effectiveness as the armed forces fight two wars.

Once certification is declared, likely sometime next year, the repeal of DADT will go into effect 60 days later. When that might occur is unclear.

Earlier today, the Senate voted 63-33 for cloture to limit debate on DADT. Four senators did not vote. Sixty votes were needed to advance the bill to a final vote.

The Senate vote follows on the heels of a House vote on Wednesday, which passed a similar measure 250-175.

Obama issued this statement:

“Today, the Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend. 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. And no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love,” Obama said.

“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. And I join the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the overwhelming majority of service members asked by the Pentagon, in knowing that we can responsibly transition to a new policy while ensuring our military strength and readiness,” he said.

“I want to thank Majority Leader Reid, Senators Lieberman and Collins and the countless others who have worked so hard to get this done. It is time to close this chapter in our history. 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. It is time to allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country openly. I urge the Senate to send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law,” Obama said.

Equal-rights advocates hailed the repeal of DADT.

A. Latham Staples, president and CEO of Empowering Spirits Foundation, based in San Diego

Today is a momentous day for the LGBT community and for all who value equality, because today, the U.S. joins 23 other nations who do not tolerate discrimination against LGBT service members within military ranks.

The repeal of ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ is just one step to setting this country on a path to full equality for all.

Since the policy was enacted in 1993, approximately 14,000 skilled men and women dedicated to protecting our country have been discharged, not for poor performance, but because of who they are.

The repeal of DADT helps bring this country closer to the ideals our country's founding fathers laid out in the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The line is simple, yet powerful.

As we confront the many challenges that currently impact this country we must realize our struggle is not about a single class in society, but society altogether - the unity of America. Diversity and individuality are qualities that enrich this country.

Differing sides may not always agree, but only through social dialogue and shared sacrifices will humanity progress, and only then can we overcome any obstacle.

Lisa Kove of DOD FED GLOBE

Now is the time for us to come together as a community. There is still more work ahead, but someday hopefully soon we will have not just full equality in the U.S., but the entire world.

Rick Jacobs, Courage Campaign chairman and founder

Today is a historic moment for our military and our country as a whole. For 17 years, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has come at great cost to taxpayers and to our collective security, and we are heartened to see that it will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Our thanks go out to the many elected leaders -- including Congressman Patrick Murphy, Majority Leader Reid, Senators Lieberman, Collins, Udall, Gillibrand and others, whose steadfast leadership has now paved the way for elimination of this failed policy. We are equally grateful to the thousands of veterans and military families, including Lt. Dan Choi, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, Capt. Anthony Woods and thousands of other LGBT servicemen and women who have courageously answered our country’s call to serve -- and whose stories showed America why repeal is not just a matter of justice and integrity, but a national security imperative.

Despite today’s vote, the work is not yet complete, and thousands of LGBT servicemen and women are continuing to serve in the shadows. That’s why we must remain vigiliant in ensuring the Senate moves quickly on final passage of repeal, and the Administration certifies and executes the Pentagon’s implementation plan in the coming months.

Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign

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.

R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans executive director

Log Cabin Republicans urge Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and President Obama to move with all deliberate speed to implement the measures necessary for open service so that certification can proceed and gay and lesbian patriots will be free to serve our nation as honestly as they do honorably. Until that happens, Log Cabin will continue to push for the constitutional rights of servicemembers by any means necessary.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

This vote today marks a critical step toward creating a path that could end in lesbian, gay and bisexual people finally being able to serve openly, honestly, and to great benefit of our country.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

I respectfully ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to use his authority to suspend all ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ investigations during this interim period. Until the president signs the bill, until there is certification, and until the 60-day congressional period is over, no one should be investigated or discharged under this discriminatory law.

Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United

This vote represents an historic step forward for this country, and it will very likely be a life-changing moment for gay and lesbian troops.