WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress on Saturday repealed the ban against gays serving openly in the military, a major victory for President Barack Obama who had promised to end what his liberal supporters said was an outdated and discriminatory policy.
Obama intends to sign it into law next week, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had pushed for the change, warned gay men and women serving in the military that the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy will remain in effect for some time while the new rules are put in place.
"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 in a statement.
The Senate voted 65-31 to end the 17-year-old ban following passage by the Democratic-led House of Representatives. Democratic leaders had pushed for its passage before the end of this session since in January Republicans, many of whom did not support the change, will control the House and will have greater numbers in the Senate.
Gay men and women were barred from serving in the military until 1993, when Democratic President Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy allowed them to serve as long as they kept their sexual orientation secret.
Bolstering the case for ending the policy, which has seen more than 13,000 men and women expelled from the U.S. military, a Pentagon report found that most in the armed services did not object to lifting the ban.
Rick Jacobs, who heads the group Courage Campaign that pushed to end the ban on gay marriage in California, said the move was a major advance for gay rights.
"I look at it as a 100 percent unmitigated success for the movement," Jacobs said. "We are certainly at the end of the beginning, and we may be at the middle of the process as far as total legal equality."
Many of those who were dismissed due to their sexual orientation have said they hope to return to service.
Former Air Force Major Mike Almy, at a news conference with Senate leaders following the vote, said he was dismissed after another officer read his private e-mails to loved ones back home. He had faced mortar attacks while commanding a unit of 200 in Iraq and was recommended to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
"There is nothing more that I want than to resume my career as an officer and a leader in the Air Force," he said.
Gates and other supporters of the repeal had argued that Congress needed to act if the military was to have time for an orderly transition to the new policy. A U.S. court-ordered end to "don't ask, don't tell" would be disruptive, he said.
The policy faced numerous court challenges.
Gates said in a statement that once Obama signed the bill, the Defense Department would begin immediately with the "planning necessary to carry out this change carefully and methodically, but purposefully."
The legislation gives the Pentagon an undetermined amount of time -- possibly months -- to educate service members and prepare for the policy change before it "certifies" repeal.
"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," Gates said.
"In the meantime, the current law and policy will remain in effect," Gates added.
Opponents of gays serving openly in the military argued that lifting the ban would undermine order and discipline and harm unit cohesiveness, especially among combat troops.
Republican opposition was largely led by Obama's 2008 White House challenger, Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain said it may be too early to end the ban and challenged the Pentagon's forecast of little impact if the policy were lifted. In a Senate speech, he argued against imposing a change while the country is at war.
"This debate is not about the broader social issues that are being discussed in our society, but what is in the best interest of our military at a time of war," McCain said.
Those favoring repeal contend the ban is discriminatory, denies the military needed soldiers and, in Obama's words, "violates fundamental American principles of fairness."
While Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated repeal, others such as Marine Corps Commandant James Amos expressed concern about the impact on troops serving in combat.
Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Alister Bull in Washington and Peter Henderson in San Francisco, Editing by Jackie Frank