WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has come up with a way to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military that would fulfill a campaign pledge while giving the administration time to work out the details with senior military leaders.
Homosexual rights groups applaud the plan. Two homosexual lawmakers, Rep. Gerry E. Studds and Rep. Barney Frank, both Democrats of Massachusetts, were consulted this week, and approved. Military officials say they are pleased that they still will get to have some say on how the change would occur.
Mr. Clinton plans to direct Defense Secretary Les Aspin to prepare an executive order that would end the ban sometime in the next few months, Clinton aides said yesterday.
Under the plan, Mr. Aspin will prepare the executive order and a code of conduct for behavior that will apply to both heterosexuals and homosexuals. Mr. Aspin and his aides are also expected to address such issues as permitting homosexual social clubs on military installations and granting dependents' benefits to homosexual partners.
In the meantime, the military will be directed less formally to stop asking recruits about their sexual orientation and discharging people from the armed services when they are found to be homosexuals.
These are the two points that would be the main practical effect once an executive order is in effect. Mr. Clinton is expected to announce his new policy in the next few days, officials say.
The two-step process buys the Clinton administration time to consult with senior military leaders while fulfilling a campaign pledge to repeal the ban with an executive order.
Under intense pressure from the military to back off that commitment, Clinton's aides had been considering a plan to lift the ban without a presidential order. Homosexual-rights advocates vigorously protested, contending that delegating the repeal to the secretary of defense would weaken the symbolic import of the move and undermine Mr. Clinton's campaign promise.
Beyond the reaction of homosexual groups and the military, the issue has attracted attention because of anticipation about how Mr. Clinton would meld the many bold promises he made in his campaign and his lifelong tendency to make compromises in the pursuit of consensus.
The new, tougher compromise was worked out by Mr. Aspin and his top aides in recent days and approved Sunday night at a meeting between Mr. Clinton and his senior national security advisers at Blair House in Washington.
"I'm tentatively optimistic," says Thomas B. Stoddard, a homosexual civil rights lawyer in New York and a former executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. "But we must be wary and be able to participate in the process of working out all the issues connected to the elimination of the ban on gay people."
At a time when military officials are already nervous because of deep cuts in Pentagon spending, lifting the prohibition on homosexuals has become one of the most emotional issues to engulf the armed services in decades.
Although top Pentagon officials acknowledge that thousands of homosexual men and women serve in the 1.8 million-member military, senior officers like Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have consistently opposed lifting the ban. The general has said that it "would be prejudicial to good order and discipline."
General Powell met with Mr. Clinton Sunday night and with Mr. Aspin several times in recent days, most recently on Tuesday. It is not clear whether Mr. Aspin briefed General Powell on the administration's plan at their latest meeting.
Senior military officials, who had grudgingly accepted that the inevitable policy change was coming, expressed satisfaction that their views would be considered before formal regulations were issued.
"The burden of proof should be on the policy officials, who should state to the military what their expectations are," says one senior officer. "It should not just be a decree. This is harder than most people would like to believe."
Clinton transition officials have been wrestling with how to satisfy the two powerful competing constituencies since Mr. Clinton's wish to undo the ban become known soon after the election.
John D. Holum, a Washington lawyer who is a former aide to George S. McGovern, the former senator from South Dakota, was given the responsibility for interviewing military officials and homosexual-rights advocates.