Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins joined six other Republicans Saturday in support of the repeal of the ban on openly gay service members in the military.

A monumental victory for gay-rights proponents, the historic vote ends a 17-year-old, Clinton-era policy that kept thousands of Americans from joining the military and forced many more from disclosing their sexual orientation.

The Senate reversed the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy by a vote of 65 to 31.

Collins hailed the vote as “an important step forward for our country because it helps correct an injustice.”

Over the past week, the Maine Republican worked with Democratic negotiators to come up with procedural tactics acceptable to Collins’ moderate colleagues to advance the vote for repeal.

“I think this is a very significant day,” Collins said in a telephone interview after the vote. “In my view, our country should welcome the service of anyone willing to put on the uniform and be deployed to war zones. We should not be excluding people who are willing to serve. I think this is a great victory for our country.”

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law next week, although changes to military policy probably wouldn’t take effect for at least several months. Under the bill, the president and his top military advisers must first certify that lifting the ban won’t hurt troops’ ability to fight. After that, the military would undergo a 60-day wait period.

Repeal would mean that, for the first time in American history, gays would be openly accepted by the armed forces and could acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out.

More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 law.

“It is time to close this chapter in our history,” Obama said in a statement. “It is time to recognize that sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed.”

Eight Republicans sided with 55 Democrats and two independents in favor of repeal. The House had passed an identical version of the bill, 250-175, last week.

Collins has backed repeal of the policy for many months. In May, she was the only Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee to vote to include language to repeal the policy in the Senate Defense Authorization bill.

Last week, she was the lone Republican to vote to proceed to consideration of the Defense Authorization bill. The motion failed, and she and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, immediately introduced a stand-alone bill to reverse the policy.

Collins said she received a phone call from the president after the vote thanking her for her leadership on the issue.

In addition to Collins and Snowe, other Republicans supporting the measure included Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and George Voinovich of Ohio.

Collins said the experience of other countries that allow gays and lesbians to serve clinched her support for the measure.

“If you look at the experience of our allies, whether it’s the Israelis, the British or the Australians who all allow open service, their experience tells us that this can be accomplished without it in any way harming military effectiveness, retention or recruitment. For me, that was a very strong argument for changing our laws.”

In a statement, Snowe said, “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,” she continued.

Many activists hope that integrating openly gay troops within the military will lead to greater acceptance in the civilian world, as it did for blacks after President Harry Truman’s 1948 executive order on equal treatment regardless of race in the military.

“The military remains the great equalizer,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. “Just like we did after President Truman desegregated the military, we’ll someday look back and wonder what took Washington so long to fix it.”

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s GOP rival in 2008, led the opposition. Speaking on the Senate floor minutes before a crucial test vote, the Arizona Republican acknowledged he couldn’t stop the bill. He blamed elite liberals with no military experience for pushing their social agenda on troops during wartime.

“They will do what is asked of them,” McCain said of service members. “But don’t think there won’t be a great cost.”

How the military will implement a change in policy, and how long that will take remains unclear. Senior Pentagon officials have said the new policy could be rolled out incrementally, service by service or unit by unit.

In a statement issued immediately after the vote, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he will begin the certification process immediately. But any change in policy won’t come until after careful consultation with military service chiefs and combatant commanders, he said.

“Successful implementation will depend upon strong leadership, a clear message and proactive education throughout the force,” he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he welcomes the change.

“No longer will able men and women who want to serve and sacrifice for their country have to sacrifice their integrity to do so,” he said. “We will be a better military as a result.”

Sen. Carl Levin, a chief proponent of repeal, said he has received a commitment from the administration that it won’t drag its heels.

“We hope it will be sooner, rather than later,” he said.

The fate of “don’t ask, don’t tell” had been far from certain earlier this year when Obama called for its repeal in his State of the Union address. Despite strong backing from liberals in Congress, Republicans and conservative Democrats remained skeptical that lifting the ban could be done quickly without hurting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In February, Mullen provided the momentum Obama needed by telling a packed Senate hearing room that he felt the law was unjust. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen became the first senior active-duty officer in the military to suggest that gays could serve openly without affecting military effectiveness.

“No matter how I look at the issue,” Mullen said, “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

With Mullen’s backing, Gates ordered a yearlong study on the impact, including a survey of troops and their families.

The study, released Nov. 30, found that two-thirds of service members didn’t think changing the law would have much of an effect. But of those who did predict negative consequences, most were assigned to combat arms units. The statistic became ammunition for opponents of repeal, including the service chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps.

“I don’t want to lose any Marines to the distraction,” Gen. James Amos, head of the Marine Corps, told reporters. “I don’t want to have any Marines that I’m visiting at Bethesda (Naval Medical Center) with no legs be the result of any type of distraction.”

Mullen and Gates counter that the fear of disruption is overblown and could be addressed through training. They note the Pentagon’s finding that 92 percent of troops who believe they have served with a gay person saw no effect on their units’ morale or effectiveness.

At least 25 countries allow gays to serve openly.