WASHINGTON -- Ending a weeklong political furor, President Clinton directed Defense Secretary Les Aspin yesterday to have a draft executive order ending the ban on homosexuals in the military on his Oval Office desk by July 15.
He also ordered an immediate end to questioning military recruits about their sexual orientation but did not go as far as he initially wanted in ending legal proceedings against gays based solely on their homosexuality.
In a compromise with Sen. Sam Nunn, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Clinton said final discharges on the single ground of sexual status will be suspended until the executive order is issued.
But the military will be free to carry on investigations and discharge proceedings, short of final action, based on both the conduct and status of homosexuals -- a point insisted on by Mr. Nunn.
In cases involving sexual misconduct, offenders will be discharged, according to the presidential directive. In cases involving only sexual status, final discharge orders will be suspended, with servicemen or women taken out of active duty and placed in the unpaid standby reserve, pending a change in the regulations. If the gay ban is ultimately lifted, they will then be able to request return to active duty.
This was the core compromise with Mr. Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who opposes ending the ban on gays in the military.
"This compromise is not everything that I would have hoped for or stood for, but it's plainly a substantial step in the right direction," Mr. Clinton said.
Mr. Nunn said he accepted what he termed the "compromise" worked out with the president and said he would go ahead with hearings on the issue in March. But he made clear he might eventually clash with the president if Mr. Clinton goes ahead in July with an executive order.
"I don't think he intends to change his mind," Mr. Nunn said of the president. "I don't have any intention of changing my mind."
Gay rights activists were incensed by what they regarded as a setback to their campaign of ending military discrimination. They blamed pressure from the religious right, resistance from the military, and the "intractability" of Mr. Nunn.
"They are throwing us in a ghetto," fumed Miriam Ben-Shalon, president of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans of America. "Clinton gave a lot more than Nunn did, no question about it."
Mr. Clinton blamed Capitol Hill supporters of the ban for pushing the issue to the front burner this week by threatening to try to turn the Pentagon directive against gays into law.
"The timing of this whole issue was clearly forced by people in the Senate who were opposed to any change in policy no matter what the facts were," Mr. Clinton said.
Senate Republicans challenged the president yesterday, saying they would introduce an amendment as early as Tuesday to codify the current ban, using the family leave bill as a vehicle.
"The so-called Clinton compromise is nothing more than political damage control for a besieged White House," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said in a statement. "It's a big mistake. He should have called for a six-month timeout to study this controversy so congressional hearings could proceed."
Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, went further, signaling that the GOP would attempt to use the issue to attack Mr. Clinton's overall leadership and undermine his authority.
"Not only does this shorten the honeymoon, but I think it really reflects on the ability of the president to set priorities and decide what is important to the American people."
In their comments yesterday, GOP senators argued that Mr. Clinton is running against public opinion.
They also accused the president of trying to change military law barring homosexual behavior. In fact, Mr. Clinton remains supportive of the military law concerning sexual conduct, which makes sodomy a crime, while favoring an end to discrimination based solely on a person's sexual orientation.
The Democrats, led by Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, predicted they would fight off the GOP challenge, particularly with Mr. Nunn, one of the most influential members of the Senate, now supporting Mr. Clinton's interim action.
But not all Democrats will go along. A spokeswoman for Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he would vote with the Republicans to codify the ban.
Introducing his plan, Mr. Clinton promised extensive consultation with the military, Congress and interested parties before issuing his executive order. "The change cannot and should not be accomplished overnight," he said.
Pointing to the agreement of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff to take the sexual orientation question off enlistment forms and to examine how the gay ban could be lifted even though they disagreed with lifting it, he said: "I think this is a dramatic step forward. Normally in the history of civil rights advancements, presidents have not necessarily been in the forefront in the beginning."
"I always knew that there was a chance that the Congress would disagree with my position," he said. "I can only tell you that I still think I am right. I feel comfortable about the way we have done this, and I am going to maintain the commitment that I have."
He said Thursday's ruling by a U.S. district court judge in Los Angeles that the ban on homosexuals in the military was unconstitutional "strengthens my hand." He said he shared the distinction drawn in the case between homosexual conduct and status.
The court decision could help him on Capitol Hill. A senior Republican aide said it would probably provide "cover" for some senators to vote with the president despite constituent opposition to lifting the ban.
In his directive, Mr. Clinton gave commanding officers authority, "in the interests of the individual," to reassign personnel who are accused of being homosexuals and are undergoing dismissal proceedings.
If they are dismissed, their discharge will be suspended and they will be placed in the standby reserve. Members of the standby reserve draw no pay or benefits, and are not required to train or wear uniform.
"It's essentially a holding pattern," said Lt. Col. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman.
Mr. Clinton also ordered the Justice Department to seek continuances in pending court cases involving former service members seeking reinstatement after being discharged on the basis of homosexuality. The continuances would seek to freeze the cases pending completion of the policy review.
As of yesterday, nine cases involving military discharges of gay Army, Navy and Air Force personnel were pending in the federal court system, said Colonel Hart.
But the actual number of current investigations and discharge proceedings against suspected gays is unknown, Colonel Hart said. He explained that virtually all investigations are conducted at military bases, which are not required to report unresolved cases to Washington.
The General Accounting Office reported last year that an average of 1,500 men and women were expelled annually between 1980 and 1990 for homosexuality. When challenged, these discharges "have been routinely upheld in the military adjudication and civil court systems," the GAO said.