President-elect Barack Obama will not move for months, and perhaps not until 2010, to ask Congress to end the military's decades-old ban on open homosexuals in the ranks, two people who have advised the Obama transition team on this issue say.
Repealing the ban was an Obama campaign promise. However, Mr. Obama first wants to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his new political appointees at the Pentagon to reach a consensus and then present legislation to Congress, the advisers said.
"I think 2009 is about foundation building and reaching consensus," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The group supports military personnel targeted under the ban.
Mr. Sarvis told The Washington Times that he has held "informal discussions" with the Obama transition team on how the new president should proceed on the potentially explosive issue.
Lawrence Korb, an analyst at the Center for American Progress and an adviser to the Obama campaign, said the new administration should set up a Pentagon committee to make recommendations to Congress on a host of manpower issues, including the gay ban.
"If it's part of a larger package, it has a better chance of getting passed," he said.
The Obama transition team did not reply to a request for comment.
The incoming administration is well aware of how President Clinton botched the same issue 15 years ago. Shortly after taking office in 1993, the president ordered the Pentagon to rescind the regulation that excluded gays.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans, and some leading Democrats, including then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia, objected. Retired military officers and a number of pro-military conservative activist groups joined the fight.
Mr. Clinton backed off. Congress ended up enacting the ban into law as part of U.S. Title 10 which regulates the military.
As a compromise, the White House and congressional leaders wrote a new policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." Under it, gay service members must keep their sexuality private or face expulsion. About 12,500 people have been discharged under the policy.
Today, gay activists cite national polls that show public sentiment, unlike in 1993, support removing the ban.
Mr. Sarvis expressed optimism that Democratic gains in the past two elections make it "more likely" Congress will let gays serve openly.
"I think the congressional results are a factor in our optimism," he said. He added that no vote count has been taken.
Delaying the congressional vote a year would give the White House time for consultation, but it would also let ban proponents organize and possibly sway public opinion, as they did in 1993.
"Homosexual activists are overconfident because they have not yet seen a counterforce emerge as occurred in 1993," said Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center, an organization that seeks to balance perceived liberal bias in mainstream news coverage.
"But as the threat grows stronger, we will see groups forming and the resistance building," he said. "Americans go about their business and are not activists until they have a Pearl Harbor moment. That has yet to happen, but it will."
He added that most Americans "are unaware that gay activists have the military in their gun sights."
Mr. Obama's gay-ban pledge was not a major campaign issue. However, he provided a policy statement to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. gay rights group, pledging to repeal the exclusion and to invite back service members discharged under the law. He also said that he wants the Pentagon to school military people on how to treat gays.
"The eradication of this policy will require more than just eliminating one statute," he told the group, in a statement posted on their Web site. "It will require the implementation of anti-harassment policies and protocols for dealing with abusive or discriminatory behavior as we transition our armed forces away from a policy of discrimination. The military must be our active partners in developing those policies and protocols."
The law states that open homosexuality in the ranks would be detrimental to combat unit readiness.
"The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability," the law says.
Ban proponents say removing the restriction would hurt recruiting by discouraging conservative, religiously oriented youths from signing up.
"It's true that many in the military have looked the other way and served alongside people they know are into homosexuality," Mr. Knight said. "But that is with the ban in place. Open acceptance would change the atmosphere entirely. If fraternization is a problem now between men and women, imagine the conflicts with openly gay officers who no longer have to be reticent."
Mr. Sarvis said not to look for the debate to begin until late next year or 2010.
"What's the reality for the new administration?" he said. "Financial crisis. Economic upheaval. Health care reform. Environmental challenges. Where does 'don't ask, don't tell' fall in all this? I would say it is not in the top five priorities of national issues."