WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Saturday to strike down the Pentagon ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, ending a 17-year struggle over a policy that forced thousands of Americans from the military and caused others to keep secret their sexual orientation.
By a vote of 65-31, with eight Republicans, including Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, joining Democrats, the Senate passed and sent to President Obama a repeal of the Clinton-era law known as "don't ask, don't tell."
Critics have said the policy amounted to government-sanctioned discrimination that treated gay and lesbian troops as second-class citizens.
Mr. Obama is expected to sign the bill into law this week, but the changes to military policy probably wouldn't take effect for at least several months.
Under the bill, the President and his top military advisers first must certify that lifting the ban won't hurt troops' ability to fight. After that, the military would undergo a 60-day waiting period.
Repeal would mean that, for the first time in U.S. history, gays would be openly accepted by the armed forces and could acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out.
More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law.
Mr. Obama hailed the action, which fulfills his pledge to reverse the ban, and said it was "time to close this chapter in our history."
"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," he said.
The vote marked a historic moment that some equated with the end of racial segregation in the military.
It followed an exhaustive Pentagon review that found the policy could be changed with only isolated disruptions to unit cohesion and retention, though members of combat units and the Marine Corps expressed greater reservations about the shift.
Congressional action was backed by Pentagon officials as a better alternative to a court-ordered end.
Repeal supporters said it was long past time to end what they saw as an ill-advised practice that cost valuable personnel and forced troops to lie to serve their country.
"We righted a wrong," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, who led the effort to end the prohibition. "Today we've done justice."
Before voting on the repeal, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants who came to the United States at a young age, finished two years of college or military service, and met other requirements, including passing a criminal background check.
The 55-41 vote was five votes shy of the number needed to clear the way for final passage of what is known as the Dream Act. The outcome effectively kills it this year and its fate beyond that is uncertain as Republicans assume control of the House in January.
The vote was taken in the final days of the 111th Congress as Democrats sought to force through a few priorities before they turn over control of the House to the Republicans.
The vote to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" represented a significant victory for the White House, congressional advocates of lifting the ban, and activists who have pushed for years to end the Pentagon policy established in 1993 under the Clinton administration as a compromise way to end the practice of banning gay men and lesbians entirely from military service.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, led opposition to removing the repeal and said the vote marked a sad day in history.
"I hope that when we pass this legislation that we will understand that we are doing great damage," he said.
He and other opponents of repealing the ban said the change could harm the unit cohesion that is key to military operations, particularly in combat, and deter some Americans from serving in the military. Other Republicans said that while the policy might need to be changed at some point, Congress should not do so when U.S. troops are fighting overseas.
In addition to Mr. Voinovich, other Republican senators backing the repeal were Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Lisa Murkow- ski of Alaska.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement after the vote he will start the certification process immediately.