Congress has taken two big steps toward ending the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the US military.
In quick succession Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the full House approved measures to repeal the 1993 law that allows gay people to serve in the armed services only if they hide their sexual orientation.
The votes were a victory for President Barack Obama, who has actively supported ending the policy, and for gay rights groups who have made repealing the ban their top legislative priority this year.
The drive to end the ban still has a long way to go. The 234-194 House vote was an amendment to a defense spending bill that comes up for a final vote Friday.
While the spending bill, which approves more than $700 billion in funds for military operations, enjoys wide support, some lawmakers vowed to vote against it if the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal were included.
The full Senate is expected to take up the defense bill next month, and Republicans are threatening delaying tactics if the change in policy toward gays remains in the legislation.
Once the legislative hurdles are out of the way, the Defense Department then has to work out how to go about making changes to accommodate gays and lesbians.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pointed out it took five years to desegregate the military after World War II once the decision was made.
Legislators and gay rights advocates hailed the House action. The leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said, "We honor the values of our nation and we close the door on a fundamental unfairness."
"Lawmakers today stood on the right side of history," said Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, a major gay rights organization.
Opponents were just as vocal as supporters.
"I think it's really going to be very harmful to the morale and effectiveness of our military," said Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, a leading opponent of the repeal and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam.
In a statement after the House vote, Obama hailed Thursday's congressional action as "important bipartisan steps toward repeal."
"This legislation will help make our armed forces even stronger and more inclusive by allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve honestly and with integrity," Obama said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee vote on the measure was 16-12, with one Republican, Susan Collins, voting for it and one Democrat, Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran, opposing it.
In the House, Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly against the amendment, cited the letters of four military service chiefs urging Congress to hold off on legislation until the military gains a full assessment of the effects the repeal might have on military life and readiness.
Gates, while voicing support for the repeal, also has said he would prefer that Congress wait until the Pentagon conducts a study, due to be finished in December, on the impact of the policy change.
The House and Senate amendments stipulate that the repeal would not become law until after the study is completed and until the president, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that it will not have negative effects on the military's fighting ability.