Controversy over military gay ban raising obstacle to family leave bill

February 03, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Congressional passage of the family and medical leave bill, expected to be an early sign that the logjam of the past legislative session had been broken, has run into turbulence. The problem: controversy over proposals to open the military to homosexuals.

Democrats had hoped to rush the family leave bill through Congress and place it on President Clinton's desk this week as a sign that the Democratic-controlled Congress was ready to work with the new Democratic president.

But a snag emerged yesterday when Republican opponents of allowing homosexuals in the armed forces said they wanted the gays-in-the-military issue put to a Senate vote. If Democrats block any such vote, some Republicans are prepared to offer a host of amendments to the family leave bill, bogging it down in an emotional debate that the president's leading supporters want to avoid.

"All we want is a vote," said Senate Minority Whip Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican.

The family leave bill, which would require large companies to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers who want time off for childbirth or a family illness, was twice vetoed by President George Bush and became a major campaign issue.

Until this week, the legislation was expected to pass easily in the Senate. In the House, where the Democratic leadership has tighter control over amendments, the legislation was assured of swift approval.

Although GOP leaders temporarily delayed offering any amendment to the family leave bill, several Republicans said that they would have no alternative if Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, as expected, denies them a separate vote on a gay ban.

Aides said that Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, planned to call for the separate vote this week. Democrats were expected to reject that request, setting the stage for the GOP amendment strategy.

There were signs of disarray in the GOP ranks, however. "We're basically trying to get our ducks in a row," said Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Sen. Hank Brown of Colorado said, "It's in everyone's interest to work something out," and Mr. Dole told the Senate: "I don't want anyone to have the impression we're holding up the family leave bill."

But some Democrats remained skeptical despite Mr. Dole's assurance and one senator warned that Republican strategy might backfire if the public perceived it as a way to block action on the family leave legislation.

"If anything gets people stirred up, it's gridlock," said Sen. Patrick V. Leahy, a Vermont Republican. Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services committee, said the Senate should defer any action on gays-in-military issues until his panel conducts hearings, now scheduled for March, and hears from veterans' groups, gay organizations and health care experts on the controversy.

"I don't think we're ready to legislate on this," Mr. Nunn told reporters.

That plan, announced last week, temporarily bars the Pentagon from discharging homosexuals, but allows the military to take other, less severe actions against them until a final decision is made later this year.

The maneuvering overshadowed Senate debate on the family leave bill, which has won the support of some conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. Even the chief opponent of the measure, Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican, acknowledged that it would become law.

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