The Senate decided on Saturday to move forward on allowing gays to serve openly in the military after earlier rejecting an effort that would have provided a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
In an 63-33 vote, the Senate passed a major procedural hurdle, voting to allow the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law to come the floor. Sixty votes were needed and six Republicans joined with Democrats to advance the bill, which required 60 votes.
A formal repeal vote still lies ahead, but the outcome seemed assured. The six Republican senators who voted with the majority were: Scott Brown, of Massachusetts; Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine; Mark Kirk of Illinois; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and George Voinovich of Ohio.
President Obama has made the repeal of the 1993 law one of his priorities in the lame-duck congressional session. The House passed the bill this week 250 to 174.
When passed by the Senate and signed by the president, the repeal would allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military without fear of prosecution for their sexual orientation. More than 13,500 people have been dismissed from the military under the law.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell is wrong,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in his opening remarks Saturday morning. “I don’t care who you love. If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are. You ought to be able to serve.”
Many Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), opposed the repeal, arguing it should not be considered during the current time of war. That position is backed by chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps who have warned Congress that repeal could pose problems if the law is overturned.
But proponents of repeal cited a recently released Pentagon study that concluded that gays could serve openly without there being any impact on combat effectiveness. The report said that two-thirds of troops predicted little effect if the law is repealed.
The Senate began its rare weekend session Saturday morning poised to battle over two of the most contentious social issues in this lame-duck session, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and immigration.
Earlier, the Senate voted down an effort to bring the Dream Act to the floor.
In a 55-41 vote, the Senate failed to advance the measure, which would have provided a way to legalize those immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children and who attend college or serve in the military. Three Republican senators voted for cloture, but 60 votes were need to advance the measure, which passed the House 216 to 198.
The Senate rejection had been expected.
The Dream Act, formally known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, provides a path to legalize those immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children and who attend college or serve in the military. Proponents argued the measure is a way of legalizing people who have been educated in the United States where they have lived most of their lives. It was also a way of recognizing those who have served in the military.
“I’ve supported Dream since it was first introduced and each year the support has grown,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on the floor. “They are hard-working young people or serving in the military. They have stayed out of trouble.”
Feinstein argued that without the Dream Act, the illegal immigrants who have spent their lives in the United States are unable to use their talents. “They are relegated to the shadows by their status,” she said, urging her colleagues to back the measure which she said “provides an opportunity and incentive for them to prove themselves.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was reelected in Nevada with strong backing from the Latino community, also spoke forcefully for the bill. One of his campaign promises was to push the measure in this session.
“I am deeply disappointed that once again Republicans have blocked a bill that would strengthen our national security. In addition, the Dream Act would have grown our economy and given children brought to this country at no fault of their own by their parents an opportunity to defend our nation. Many of my Republican colleagues supported this measure in the past, but today their absence dashed the dreams of hundreds of thousands,” Democrat Reid said in a prepared statement.
“Only three principled Republicans stood up to pressure from their leadership. The courage of Senators Robert Bennett, Richard Lugar and Lisa Murkowski is exemplary, and I wish more of their fellow members would have followed them,” Reid said.
“Today we mourn, but tomorrow we shift back into gear to fight for justice and inclusion in America,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the Task Force on Immigration of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “We must not only fight to protect our Dream Act brothers and sisters, but also their mothers and fathers from the mass deportation policies that are staining and tearing our moral fabric.”
Opponents to the Dream Act saw the measure as the first step in the battle over broader immigration reform, a politically contentious issue and one that conservatives have fiercely opposed.
In his comments on the floor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) denounced what he called an amnesty bill for those who entered the country illegally.
“The bill at its core is a reward for illegal activities,” said Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He also said the current bill is the fifth version of the measure and that none had gone through the committee hearing process.
“For two years Democrat leaders have ignored the public and rammed through unpopular legislation,” Sessions said. “And now they are at it again, trying to force through another unacceptable bill in the last days of a lame-duck congress.”