WASHINGTON -- Seeking to avoid a politically costly showdown with Congress, President Clinton will take a more modest initial step than expected toward lifting the ban on gays in the military.
The president will issue a directive to Defense Secretary Les Aspin today or tomorrow that would temporarily end the military practice of asking applicants their sexual preference, administration officials said. But he is no longer expected to immediately suspend legal action against gays already in the military.
Mr. Aspin would work with military officials, Congress and others to determine the best way to integrate gays, culminating in an executive order lifting the ban in about six months.
After Mr. Clinton met with Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last night, Mr. Aspin said the administration will try to put together a policy during the six months that will give the House and Senate "ample time for a vote before anything went into effect."
"I believe there is a policy here that is consistent with President Clinton's campaign pledge and which is broadly acceptable to the U.S. military and Congress," Mr. Aspin said. "That is what we are to explore in the six months. That is what we are working on."
The meeting at the White House was held amid intensifying pressure on Congress from military and conservative groups backing the ban.
In another effort to blunt congressional opposition, Mr. Clinton promised that his policy concerning gays would include a "strict code of conduct" governing the sexual behavior of homosexuals and heterosexuals.
"He believes there must be a strict code of conduct in the military and he would make no exceptions to that policy," said George Stephanopoulos, his communications director.
Emphasizing that Mr. Clinton's policy was only meant to end discrimination against gays as a group, not encourage homosexual behavior, he added, "I think it is important to draw a line between status and conduct."
By agreeing only to stop asking applicants their sexual preference, Mr. Clinton appears to have averted an immediate confrontation with a powerful Democratic opponent on this issue, Sen. Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Nunn emerged from last night's meeting saying he was hopeful Congress and the White House could work out how to handle the issue. But, he added, "It's not a done deal. It's not completed. We don't have anything in writing."
Mr. Nunn made a 25-minute speech on the Senate floor yesterday in which he urged the administration not to take any "final action" before the committee holds hearings on the issue in March.
"We must move very cautiously," the Georgia Democrat said. "This caution, in my view, is prudence, not prejudice."
But if Mr. Clinton's first step went beyond that, Mr. Nunn refused to say whether he would support it. In his speech, he combined his call for no "final" action by the president with an appeal to lawmakers not to pursue legislation on the issue until the hearings have been held.
Senate Republicans say they will seek to pass an amendment next week supporting the military ban.
Though Senate Democratic leaders hope to block any vote that would require members to indicate whether they support or oppose lifting the ban, Mr. Nunn predicted that some kind of vote would occur. He said he would reserve judgment himself on the issue until after the hearings, but at present remains opposed.
"I said I would listen to all points of view," Mr. Nunn said. "But I have a position. I'm not wandering in without a position."
Mr. Clinton's efforts to mollify lawmakers included a personal phone call to Mr. Nunn Tuesday night and a decision to postpone making an announcement yesterday. That gave Mr. Clinton and Mr. Aspin more time to lobby Congress.
An administration official who asked not to be identified said the president favors the hearings planned by Mr. Nunn. "I think he wants input from all quarters on this . . . Clinton and Mr. Aspin spent the day in consultation with congressional leaders trying to reassure them they would have access to this process and their concerns would be answered."
Lawmakers are feeling the heat of thousands of calls from the public, most of them in support of the ban. The single largest group expressing opposition appears to be current and retired military officials.
Capitol Hill offices reported a surge of calls since the beginning of the week. The office of Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat who supports lifting the ban, received yesterday 317 calls supporting the ban and 139 against it.
Two dozen veterans' organizations met with Senate Republicans yesterday, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans. House Republicans opposed to lifting the ban held a news conference with military and other groups, among them the Traditional Values Coalition and Concerned Women for America.
The issue of gays in the military has galvanized conservative organizations that have been influential in the Republican Party. The anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue has joined the movement against opening the military to gays.
A leading conservative group, the Family Research Council, is encouraging military groups and service people to protest Mr. Clinton's plan to lift the ban. Council spokeswoman Kristi S. Hamrick said the group has bought newspaper ads in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where there are major military installations, urging people to oppose a change in military policy.
"If the president listens to homosexuals and lesbians and chooses not to listen to us, we're going to have to go somewhere else for our primary voice," she said.