Compromise over ending military ban on gays eludes Clinton, Senate leaders

January 29, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and John Fairhall | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau Richard H.P. Sia of the Washington Bureau and contributing writer Nelson Schwartz contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Senate leaders carried a proposed compromise to the White House last night in an effort to head off a showdown with President Clinton over ending the ban on gays in the military but failed to make a final breakthrough.

Both sides reported "progress," but Mr. Clinton will talk again this morning with Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and key figure in the effort to avoid a congressional showdown, before he makes a public announcement.

Mr. Nunn, appearing angry, left last night's meeting saying curtly: "We made some progress towards reaching a conclusion on this matter."

Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, the Senate majority leader, left a half-hour later, praising the president for "working diligently to resolve the matter," but declining to say a deal had been struck.

"It's an important policy. Obviously there are strong emotions on all sides that need to be carefully considered," he said.

Dee Dee Myers, the president press secretary, acknowledged that both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Nunn had a "few things" that each wanted to review before resuming their talks today.

Of Senator Nunn, she said: "He had serious concerns about this, and we are working to address them."

The central issue dividing Mr. Clinton and Mr. Nunn was whether declared homosexuals should be permitted to remain in the military during the six months it will take Mr. Clinton to draw up his executive order ending the prohibition on gays.

Mr. Clinton asserted they should be allowed to stay in the ranks. Mr. Nunn, supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes the current practice of discharging them should continue.

The two sides agreed that the practice of asking recruits whether they were homosexuals should be dropped. They also agreed that homosexual troops "guilty of improper conduct" should be severed from the military.

Mr. Clinton told reporters before last night's meeting they were "pretty close to [agreed] language" on how to prepare for implementation of his executive order ending the ban in six months.

All signs are that it will be a narrower directive than the one he originally envisioned, which would have ended questioning about recruits' sexual orientation on enlistment, suspended pending dismissals and stopped prosecutions.

The senators' proposed compromise involved a stop to asking recruits whether they are homosexuals, an unexplained "partial" moratorium on dismissals, and giving commanding officers the right to transfer homosexuals.

Mr. Clinton's directive today will give Defense Secretary Les Aspin and the Joint Chiefs six months to work out the mechanics of ending the ban and give Congress time to hold hearings and vote on the issue.

Throughout the day, the two sides tried to reach a compromise, with failure threatening to turn Mr. Clinton's second week in office into a train wreck with the Senate.

Mr. Clinton stood by his basic commitment to ending the prohibition on gays in the military, saying during a White House photo opportunity:

"The principle behind this for me is that Americans who are willing to conform to the requirements of conduct within the military services, in my judgment should be able to serve in the military, and that people should be disqualified from serving the military based on something they do, not based on who they are. vTC That is the elemental principle."

He said there was "an enormous amount of agreement" on the plan, noting that the Joint Chiefs agreed with him that the "are you a homosexual" question should be dropped from the enlistment procedure and that he agreed with them that improper conduct should lead to severance.

"The narrow issue on which there is disagreement is whether people should be able to say that they are homosexual . . . and do nothing else, without being severed. But there are a whole lot of very complicated practical questions that flow from that very narrow issue, and that's what I want to have six months to give them a chance to work on."

A senior military officer familiar with the negotiations said the top brass would tolerate the presence of closeted homosexuals in the ranks as long as they kept their sexual orientation private and met accepted standards of conduct, a view shared by Mr. Nunn.

"Our preference is to dismiss someone who is an avowed homosexual as a matter of policy," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The officer said the confrontation had become a stand-off

between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Nunn, two Democratic politicians whose relationship has never been particularly close. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Nunn went through the motions of supporting Mr. Clinton but did not exert any particular political effort on his behalf.

A Pentagon spokesman, when questioned on the sticking points, repeatedly referred a reporter to Mr. Nunn, apparently reflecting the Joint Chiefs' readiness to let the Georgia Democrat carry the fight to their commander in chief.

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