WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration yesterday worked to head off mounting congressional opposition to lifting the ban on gays in the military.
As Republicans tried to provoke a confrontation over Mr. Clinton's proposal to end the ban, the administration sought to assuage a key Democratic critic, Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Nunn, who expressed annoyance at the lack of consultation with Congress, had planned to speak out on the Senate floor yesterday but postponed that as administration officials sought to address his concerns.
"We think he ought to understand better that we are not going to undertake something like this without" consulting with the military and others, an administration official said.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, said they would seek the showdown that Sen. George J. Mitchell, D.-Maine, the Senate majority leader, predicted would be avoided.
Republicans led by Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana may try to insert a gay-ban amendment into non-military legislation, perhaps the Family and Medical Leave Act, expected to come up next week.
"We cannot allow politics to destroy the greatest Army the world has ever known," declared Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican. He said Republican Senate leaders would seek to discuss the issue with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ultimately "generate legislation designed to maintain the current policy."
The growing concern over Mr. Clinton's campaign pledge to end discrimination against gays was fueled in part by thousands of phone calls from constituents, most of whom said they favored current military policy.
The office of Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes reported receiving "several hundred" calls yesterday, a sign that the issue is beginning to ignite significant public awareness. Some other congressional offices reported similar numbers.
Although the volume of calls does not match the outcry provoked by the controversy over Zoe Baird, who was forced to withdrew last week as the attorney general nominee, some conservative Christian religious groups are already trying to fan public opposition.
Mr. Clinton's aides say that within a few days he plans to have Defense Secretary Les Aspin suspend enforcement of the ban.
Mr. Aspin then will consult with military leaders, members of Congress and others over the next five months to determine the best way to permanently lift it, according to White House officials.
But the president's failure to adequately consult Congress over his plans annoyed many in his own party, which in turn encouraged a number of Republicans to speak out.
Criticizing Mr. Clinton, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the Republican House whip, seized on comments by Mr. Nunn.
"I think Senator Nunn was correct in pointing out that the issue of discipline in the military is an issue by constitutional right given to Congress," Mr. Gingrich said yesterday after congressional leaders met with Mr. Clinton.
Lawmakers of both parties also were annoyed at having to spend time on an issue that to them seems tangential to the major domestic agenda -- economic and health care reform -- before Congress.
"I think it's time [in which] the people would rather have us doing something else," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat who lost a leg while serving in the Vietnam War.
"I support the president," Mr. Kerrey said. "I think it's the right change to make. [But] I think it's a huge change in the military culture. I think it's going to take a long time."
Like a number of other lawmakers, he said several questions have to be answered -- among them, whether gays in the military can marry -- if the ban is to be overturned.
Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who was also wounded in the Vietnam War and whose son just joined the Marines, said, "If the vote were today, I would vote no."
"My personal experience showed some potential danger if we open up the military in such a well-publicized manner," Mr. Gilchrest said. "There's just so many problems that could result. . . . You could have abuse against gays; you could have gays abuse young recruits."
Mr. Gilchrest said he saw no such assaults during his service as a Marine, though it was known that there were gays in the ranks.
Mr. Gilchrest said he hadn't had time to thoroughly analyze the issue of gay participation in the military and looked forward to the Nunn hearings for information.
The spokesman for Mr. Sarbanes reported that he has not taken a position on lifting the ban. His Democratic colleague, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, supports Mr. Clinton, her press secretary said.
Some lawmakers hoped the president would in effect defer action by appointing a commission to study the issue. But Mr. Mitchell, the majority leader, said he knew of no plans beyond Mr. Aspin's intention to consult broadly with experts.