Thursday, June 18, 2009

President Obama is considering nominating an openly gay man to a top civilian Pentagon post as he seeks to temper growing criticism from gay rights advocates that he has not been bold enough on their issues.

Under fire for not lifting the ban on gays serving in the armed forces and for defending a 1996 law curbing federal recognition of same-sex unions, Mr. Obama took steps Wednesday to expand benefits for gay partners of federal workers. He made the move as The Washington Times learned that the president was considering nominating William White, president of the Intrepid museum in New York, to a civilian Pentagon post that would make him the highest-ranking openly gay person in the department.

Gay rights groups welcomed Wednesday’s action as a small step, but said it only underscores how far Mr. Obama still has to go to make good on his campaign promises to end the military ban and to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

“The extension of benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and the nomination and appointment of high-level gays and lesbians are welcome steps. But the small steps smell a lot like appeasement; and in fact, aides have said the announcement was timed, in part, to quell criticism from gays and lesbians who are losing patience with the president’s inaction,” said Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the Palm Center, which studies sexuality and the U.S. military.

Mr. Obama said many of the changes require Congress to pass laws to lift the ban on gays serving in the military or extend full benefits to same-sex partners. But in the meantime, he said, he’s trying to do what he can by extending some federal workers’ benefits.

“We’ve got more work to do to ensure that government treats all its citizens equally,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m committed to these efforts, and I pledge to work tirelessly on behalf of these issues in the months and years to come.”

He called the memo he signed, which extends sick leave and long-term care benefits to same-sex partners, a “first step, not a final step.”

Advocacy groups, though, want him to take those other steps now. They said he should take unilateral action on his campaign promises to repeal the DOMA law and lift the ban on gay troops, or he should send legislation to Congress.

“He made specific pledges to pass hate crimes legislation, enact laws to prevent workplace discrimination, end ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ and repeal DOMA,” said Michael B. Keegan, president of People For the American Way. “Since then, we’ve been waiting for concrete results. Today’s presidential memorandum is a very small step in the right direction, but it’s a token, and tokens are no longer enough.”

Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, was more charitable, saying Mr. Obama’s move was “the first brick in paving what is a long path toward equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

“We commend President Obama and his administration for taking this beginning step to level the playing field, but we look forward to working with him to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, overturn ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and guarantee the entire American work force is free from discrimination,” said the group’s president, Joe Solmonese.

Advocacy groups balked last week when Mr. Obama’s administration filed a legal brief defending DOMA, saying states don’t have to recognize all marriages from other states. The groups took particular offense at what they saw as a move to equate homosexual relationships with incestuous relationships.

Several prominent gay Democrats reportedly have backed out of a high-dollar Democratic National Committee fundraiser scheduled for next week in protest of the Obama administration’s legal argument.

Mr. Obama said during the campaign he supports repealing DOMA, but that would set up a bruising fight in Congress.

In the meantime, members of Congress have introduced legislation extending all federal benefits to same-sex partners, and the president said he backs those bills.

“This is not only a matter of fairness, but would also help the federal government attract, recruit and retain the most qualified workers, at a time when the number of federal employees eligible to retire is steadily increasing,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and a bill sponsor.

Mr. Obama is considering nominating Mr. White for deputy chief management officer for the Pentagon — a Senate-confirmed position created last year by Congress to help with management of the sprawling Defense Department.

If confirmed, he likely would face questions during a Senate confirmation hearing over how his nomination would square with the military’s policies on gays — though as a civilian position, he would not run afoul of the policy.

In 1993, President Clinton signed into law “don’t ask, don’t tell” in which openly gay service members have been expelled from the military.

The Palm Center, the think tank where Mr. Frank is a fellow, said Mr. Obama could use national security grounds to halt expulsions under the law.

Mr. Frank said nominating an openly gay person wouldn’t signal how Mr. Obama plans to proceed on the ban on gay servicemembers.

Neither the Defense Department nor the White House would comment on Mr. White’s potential nomination, and Mr. White’s spokeswoman said he couldn’t be reached for comment.

Last year, The Times reported that Mr. White was being backed by top retired military officials to be Navy secretary, though that position went to Ray Mabus.

As head of the Intrepid, a museum based on the retired aircraft carrier of the same name, Mr. White has been widely praised by military officials and politicians, and appears to have a strong network of supporters backing him for a government office.

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