WASHINGTON – A proposal to step up the repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military but still allow the Pentagon time — perhaps even years — to implement new policies was being discussed Monday by administration officials and gay rights activists.
The White House had hoped lawmakers would delay action until Pentagon officials had completed their study so fellow Democrats would not face criticism that they moved too quickly or too far ahead of public opinion in this election year. Instead, administration officials now expect Congress to move ahead this week even though advocates on both sides say it's not clear there are enough votes to lift the 1993 ban.
Under the proposal emerging from talks at the White House, Congress would remove the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" law even as the Pentagon continues an ongoing review of the system. Implementation of policy for gays serving openly would still require the approval of President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. How long implementation might take was not known.
Activists met at the White House through the day with administration officials who are trying to broker a compromise. Policy aides to Democratic leaders met Monday morning to discuss the potential deal and top Democratic lawmakers planned to meet Monday evening on Capitol Hill.
Hoping to secure those votes, Democrats described a compromise that would add the repeal to the annual defense spending bill but delay its implementation until after the Pentagon completes its study.
The emerging compromise was described by officials and activists involved in the process, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meetings were ongoing and there were still details to be finalized.
Obama called for the repeal during his State of the Union address this year, and Gates and Mullen have echoed his views but have cautioned any action must be paced.
In a speech last year at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., Gated noted that the 1948 executive order for racial integration took five years to implement.
"I'm not saying that's a model for this, but I'm saying that I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully," he told the audience.
The administration has argued that any repeal should start in Congress and have the backing of top military leaders. Gay rights activists criticized the administration as Obama did little to push for a repeal during his first year in office.
On Capitol Hill, the third-ranking House Republican promised unified GOP opposition to lifting the ban. "The American people don't want the American military to be used to advance a liberal political agenda. And House Republicans will stand on that principle," said Mike Pence, R-Ind.
Pence urged Democrats who control both chambers to wait until the Pentagon completes its review of what a repeal would take.
Congress led hearings on a repeal and heard testimony from Gates and Mullen — the top uniformed official in the country — in favor of repeal. Additionally, a Gallup poll earlier this month found 70 percent of American favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.
Obama's relationship with gay activists has been rocky since his election. Gays and lesbians objected to the invitation of evangelist Rev. Rick Warren's to participate in Obama's inauguration because of Warren's support for repealing gay marriage in California. Obama responded by having Episcopalian Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the denomination's first openly gay bishop, participate at another event.
Obama has taken a slow and incremental approach to the politically charged issues. He has expanded some federal benefits to same-sex partners, but not health benefits or pension guarantees. He has allowed State Department employees to include their same-sex partners in certain embassy programs already available to opposite-sex spouses.
The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was imposed by a 1993 law intended as a compromise between President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the ban on gays entirely, and a reluctant Congress and military that said doing so would threaten order.
Under the policy, the military can't ask recruits their sexual orientation. In turn, service members can't say they are gay or bisexual, engage in homosexual activity or marry a member of the same sex.
Between 1997 and 2008, the Defense Department discharged more than 10,500 service members for violating the policy.