WASHINGTON -- A historic bill to repeal a ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military headed to President Obama's desk on Saturday, after it passed the Senate on a 65-31 vote. Freshman Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a Navy reserve officer, was one of eight Republicans voting in favor of repeal.
Kirk had been noncommittal on the 17-year-old ban-known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" throughout his heated Senate campaign. He wanted to wait, he said, for a Pentagon study to be complete. On Dec. 9, Kirk voted against advancing a repeal tacked on to a defense funding bill because he had signed a GOP pledge on the day he was sworn in, Nov. 29, to first deal with tax and budget measures.
The main sponsors of the repeal legislation, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) were able to revive it Saturday as a stand-alone bill. With the tax bill already signed by Obama and a short term budget measure approved, they got Kirk and other Republicans on board. A supermajority of at least 60 votes was needed in order to avoid a filibuster. There were 57 Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), for repeal.
"It was the right thing to do for our military, it was the right thing to do for our country," Lieberman said after the vote. " . . . This is a civil rights piece of legislation."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led a drive against repeal, confronted Kirk on the Senate floor during the debate. According to two people I talked to who witnessed the incident, McCain urged him in very strong terms not to vote "yes'' and told him he was making a mistake.
I asked Kirk about this as he was entering the Senate chamber for the final vote. Did he have words with McCain? "We always talk," Kirk said.
Did he ask you not to vote in favor of repeal? "He's on one side, but I decided that this is the right time to . . . take this action," said Kirk, who noted that McCain was "pretty passionate" on the issue.
Congress acted after a Pentagon study on gays serving in the armed forces in November recommended the ban be lifted, with objections raised most strongly from the Marine Corps. Kirk said he voted yes after he reviewed the Pentagon study and consulted with Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations.
While Kirk was keeping his head down on how he would vote on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'' behind the scenes, he told Lieberman and Collins last week they would likely have his support on a stand-alone bill -- giving them confidence to push ahead. As a matter of tactics, Kirk's name did not surface as a supporter in order to insulate him from pressure, I was told, and to preserve his backing.
"His vote was a key vote and it was one that we knew going into the vote that we had today," Collins said when I asked her about Kirk.
Lieberman told me "I found out definitively yesterday" that Kirk was a "yes.'' "But I will tell you during and after the vote last Thursday he was pretty encouraging about the fact that if it came up on stand alone, he was likely to be favorable."
Besides Kirk, Republicans voting for repeal were Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John Ensign of Nevada, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and George Voinovich of Ohio. Earlier this week, the House passed an identical version of the bill on a 250-175 vote.
David Smith, the vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay rights group, told me, "We are very grateful for Mark Kirk's vote." He added later, "I imagine it was not an easy vote for him."
The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban was passed by Congress with the support of then President Bill Clinton and has been controversial ever since. Obama campaigned for president pledging to repeal the ban and the Saturday vote hands him a victory.
The Obama team working on repeal -- including Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, White House Public Engagements Chief Tina Tchen and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina -- were in the Senate for the historic vote. Quoting Obama, Jarrett told me, " 'Today we became a more perfect union.' "