U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine were among eight Senate Republicans who voted Saturday to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the controversial military policy that bans openly gay men and women from serving.

The vote, which needed only a simple majority, passed 65-31 Saturday afternoon after an earlier procedural vote that needed at least 60 votes cleared the way.

The bill now goes to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature, but it could be months before the Pentagon fully implements the new policy.

Reaction to the vote Gays see repeal as civil rights milestone
“It’s one step in a very long process of becoming an equal rights citizen.”

“The bottom line for me is, if a person who is qualified wants to serve our country, to put on our uniform and be deployed to a war zone, we ought to welcome that service,” Collins said Saturday in a telephone interview after the vote. “I view this as a matter of fairness and justice, but also as a matter that we should want to have the talents of anyone who wants to serve.”

Earlier this year, Collins was the lone Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee to vote to include language to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the Senate Defense Authorization bill. That bill ultimately failed, but she and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced a stand-alone bill.

Snowe said in a statement after the vote: “Given the current demands on U.S. service members in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the legislation passed today does not direct immediate repeal, but rather requires the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in consultation with the service chiefs, to develop a detailed plan prior to executing repeal of the policy. That plan must support the recruiting and retention needs of our military while protecting unit cohesion and military readiness, which Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates testified before Congress is a prerequisite for earning his certification of repeal.”

Every Democrat supported the repeal Saturday, as did the two Senate independents. Joining Maine’s senators in crossing party lines were Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, George Voinovich of Ohio, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada and Scott Brown of Massachusetts,

The U.S House of Representatives voted Wednesday to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” by a 250-175 margin. Maine Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both Democrats, voted for the repeal.

President Obama called Saturday’s vote overturning a 17-year military policy 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.”

He also singled out Collins in his statement.

“I want to thank Majority Leader [Harry] Reid, Senators Lieberman and Collins and the countless others who have worked so hard to get this done,” Obama said. “It is time to close this chapter in our history.”

The Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization that supports fairness, freedom, and equality for gay and lesbian Americans, also praised Collins’ leadership on repealing DADT.

“[We] are proud of our Senate allies who have voted to make our military stronger. Senator Collins, in particular, has long been the point of the spear in fighting for repeal among Republicans,” R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director, said in a statement. “She showed tremendous leadership in crossing the aisle to make this vote happen, continuing the fight when many thought hope was lost.”

Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, said Mainers should be proud of their entire congressional delegation for unanimously supporting the repeal.

“Finally after years of anguish and silence, the proud women and men from Maine in the service of our nation can speak openly and honestly about who they are and who they love,” Smith said.

Despite the compliment from the president, Collins apparently was snubbed by Senate Majority Leader Reid at a press conference Saturday, according to Politico, an online news outlet.

Reid’s people said Collins was invited and declined to attend. Kevin Kelley, Collins’ spokesman, said the senator was not invited.

Earlier this month, Reid and Collins clashed on the Senate floor over the initial defense bill that included the DADT repeal because Collins did not like the process. Still, Collins said Saturday that she didn’t view the vote as a partisan issue, but a human issue.

“Society has changed so much during the past 17 years,” she said. “People are much more accepting and much more understanding that our country cannot afford to waste talents of anyone. It’s interesting that 17 years ago it was a Democratic president [Bill Clinton] who signed this into law, and it took Republican cooperation to overturn the policy.”

In the procedural vote Saturday morning before the afternoon floor vote, six GOP senators, including Collins and Snowe, broke with their party to let the bill move ahead. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the only Democrat to oppose repeal, did not vote.

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s GOP rival in 2008, led the opposition. Speaking on the Senate floor minutes before the procedural vote, the Arizona Republican acknowledged he didn’t have the votes to stop the bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report