In what is shaping up as one of the most sensitive domestic issues of his early presidency, Mr. Clinton is attempting to find a way of fulfilling his campaign promise with the least political damage. His aides said he would issue his initial order within a week.
Mr. Clinton met with the military chiefs yesterday and will meet with a bipartisan group from Congress today to try to overcome broad resistance in both groups to the move, which would reverse a 1986 Pentagon directive declaring that homosexuality was incompatible with military service and subject to discharge. Homosexuality has been barred from the military under various orders since 1944.
The president has the power to lift the ban by executive order, but Congress could vote to reinstate it. Congress also has a constitutional responsibility to "raise and support" the military and would have to enact any change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The code currently holds sodomy a crime, punishable by discharge.
Mr. Clinton is expected to direct Defense Secretary Les Aspin in the next few days to order the military to stop asking recruits about their sexual orientation and investigating suspected gays and lesbians in the armed services.
The directive would also give Mr. Aspin six months to devise a plan with military leaders to allow homosexuals to serve in the military, focusing on setting strict new standards of conduct applicable to both homosexual and heterosexual men and women.
Mr. Clinton's meeting with the military top brass yesterday was an effort to get their "input," but even before hearing their objections, he said: "I intend to keep my commitment."
At meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, Mr. Clinton informed the military leaders that he wanted to end discrimination "solely on the basis of [sexual] status," while "maintaining morale and cohesion" in the ranks.
The White House spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, acknowledged that the joint chiefs "expressed their concerns and difficulties with the president's commitment" but said they respected the "decision-making power of the commander-in-chief." He described the meeting as "cordial, honest and respectful."
"I think we will be able to sell it," Mr. Stephanopoulos said. "Whenever you try to make progress in civil rights, in ending discrimination, there is opposition at the front. It's always difficult. I think there are some special difficulties with the military in making sure that we do maintain good order and discipline."
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who went into the meeting still hoping to change the president's mind, refused to comment on his return to the Pentagon, telling an aide: "I am not at liberty to describe what was discussed, or what was decided."
General Powell told his aides afterward that it was "a very productive meeting." An administration source said the chiefs "forcefully expressed their opinion. They weren't shy." But the source suggested that the chiefs left the meeting convinced they would now have to accept the president's decision and would have to focus on implementing the policy change.
The White House meeting followed a stormy two-hour session Thursday on the same issue with Mr. Aspin, and the military leaders were anxious to state their concerns directly to Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Aspin said Sunday that Congress would not go along with lifting the ban, and said it would take six months "to see if we can work it out."
He added: "If we can't work it out, we'll disagree and the thing won't happen."
But at the White House, the only questions now appear to be how and when Mr. Clinton will move to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military.
Having read press accounts of Mr. Clinton's plan to lift the ban, the joint chiefs were anxious not "to get snookered," a senior military official said. "They had a lot they wanted to say."
The chiefs oppose ending the ban because they fear it would disrupt "good order and discipline" in the ranks and erode the military's combat-effectiveness.
Before he left the Pentagon for the meeting, General Powell received more than 515 calls yesterday, all but 16 from people urging that the current ban on homosexuals be retained.
"These are just average citizens calling," said Army Col. Bill Smullen, a spokesman for General Powell. "That's heavily weighted in one direction, and like other, more scientific polls, you can't say there's an overwhelming consensus out there for a change in policy."
But congressional offices reported only slightly more calls than usual on the issue -- nothing like the deluge that helped bring down the nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general last week. One office that did see a jump was that of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, which received about 110 calls, with the vast majority opposing the presence of gays in the armed services.
Among the concerns of top brass are questions about the impact on the military's criminal code, which makes sodomy a crime and defines homosexuals as a group of people who intend to commit criminal acts, officials said. They have also questioned whether gay partners would receive survivors' benefits, health care and housing, which are given to heterosexuals.
Earlier this month, General Powell gave a very public account of his thinking on the issue, telling the U.S. Naval Academy during the Forrestal Lecture series that the issue would be settled only after Congress, as well as the president, had spoken.
"If, after consideration, the Congress of our nation and the president elected by the citizens of our nation make those decisions [to include homosexuals], then you must examine your feelings," General Powell said. "We must conform to that policy. The debate will be over."
But the four-star general also told his audience: "If it strikes at the heart of your moral beliefs, then you have to resign."
Officials close to the chiefs dismissed as groundless recent news accounts that General Powell or other top military leaders might resign over the issue. "They're feeling they are better off trying to lead the services and do what the civilian policy-makers want to accomplish than just bailing out," one senior official said.
But General Powell is convinced Congress -- driven by popular opinion -- may have the last word, another official said. "Congress is likely to require a vote on this and it's apt to require some legislation," he said.
Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is to hold hearings on the issue in March. Mr. Nunn, who opposes lifting the ban, said: "I think something is fundamentally wrong when the men and women in the military have an issue that is vital to them, that affects them, and they never have been heard from."