Today’s news that departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will open front-line combat positions to women elicited joy from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have been arguing that women deserve the opportunity to serve in all capacities on the 21st century battlefield.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended overturning a Clinton-era rule that bans women from serving in smaller ground combat units.

“This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. “From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honorably and bravely. In fact, it’s important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male servicemembers.”

The military branches will have until 2016 to seek exceptions if they have reason to believe some jobs should still be closed to women. Implementation of all special forces and front-line positions is not expected to happen immediately.

“I respect and support Secretary Panetta’s decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat. The fact is that American women are already serving in harm’s way today all over the world and in every branch of our armed forces. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and our nation owes them a deep debt of gratitude,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.

“As this new rule is implemented, it is critical that we maintain the same high standards that have made the American military the most feared and admired fighting force in the world – particularly the rigorous physical standards for our elite special forces units,” he added.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), had a short and sweet reaction to the “expected” announcement: “I support it,” he said. “It reflects the reality of 21st century military operations.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who got a feasibility study on women in combat included in the defense reauthorization bill, called it “a proud day for our country.”

“This decision finally opens the door for more qualified women to excel in our military and advance their careers, and obtain all of the benefits they have earned,” Gillibrand said. “Officially recognizing women in combat will strengthen our country both morally and militarily, and create promising opportunities for the brave women who serve our country, and the families that stand by them.”

“Women should be judged by qualifications and abilities, not by gender,” tweeted Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) declared “yet another glass ceiling is about to be shattered.”

“America’s military is the greatest in the world and it has been made stronger today with the promise of equal opportunity for women and men,” he said.