On issue of gays in military, Pentagon will make recommendations to Congress

By Craig Whitlock and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 29, 2010; A08

The Pentagon has been studying ways to integrate gays into the military and, for the first time, will offer recommendations to Congress next week "on a way forward," defense officials said Thursday, following President Obama's declaration that he wants to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law this year.

Defense officials declined to reveal details about the Pentagon's preferred approach for allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. But they said that the military would prefer to phase in a new policy over time and that they would leave the details to Congress.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, officials said. Gates has been discussing policy with Obama but is still working on a plan, said a senior Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesman for Mullen said the Joint Chiefs also have been researching possible approaches but have not reached a consensus. "The Joint Chiefs have been thinking through how they would go about offering their best advice on this issue," said the spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby. He said Mullen "will raise issues that we need to address" when he visits the Senate on Tuesday.

The congressional appetite remains uncertain for overturning the 1993 law, which allows gays to serve in uniform only if they hide their sexual orientation. Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have said they favor a repeal, they have not pushed the issue. Republicans are largely opposed. So are some key Democrats, including Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Wary of stirring opposition within the ranks, the Pentagon has also moved gingerly, deferring to Congress and the White House on how to proceed.

Some military leaders, including members of the Joint Chiefs, have resisted any change, saying the armed forces are already strained from fighting long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Among them is Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps. "Our Marines are currently engaged in two fights, and our focus should not be drawn away from those priorities," Conway's spokesman, Maj. David Nevers, told the Washington Times in October. "When the time is right, we have full confidence that we will be asked to provide the best military advice concerning the readiness of the Corps as it relates to this issue." On Thursday, Nevers said Conway's position had not changed.

But other current and former military officials have softened their stance since 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation into law in a compromise after the military strenuously objected to his proposal to allow gays to serve openly.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy admiral who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said he hopes Congress will act soon.

"I've always thought it was a policy that was discriminatory, and we were obviously losing some good sailors," he said. "I believe that having gone to war with these guys, how can you come home and not give them equal rights?"

Obama promised during his 2008 campaign that he would change the law, but he has come under pressure from gay rights groups for not making the issue a higher priority. During his State of the Union address Wednesday, Obama repeated his pledge but spoke about the issue only briefly, saying the current law "denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

Some gay rights organizations have urged the president to issue an executive order that would immediately overturn "don't ask, don't tell." But White House officials said that Obama thinks the best way to end the policy is with legislation and that he will leave the timing up to Congress.

Gay rights groups were already mobilizing Thursday to make the subject a campaign issue before congressional elections in November. The Human Rights Campaign announced plans to start a more than $2 million national grass-roots and lobbying campaign targeting lawmakers whose votes would be needed to pass a repeal.

Also Thursday, Obama reiterated his support for legislation under consideration in the House and Senate that would extend full domestic benefits to the partners of gay federal employees.

During a presidential town hall meeting in Florida, a University of Tampa student asked Obama about his position on equal rights for same-sex couples, noting that he had expressed support for a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" during his State of the Union speech.

Obama said he hopes Congress will pass the legislation this year. "It's the right thing to do, and it makes sense for us to take a leadership role in ensuring that people are treated the same."

In June, Obama signed a memo that provides partial benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.

Staff writers Greg Jaffe and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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