WASHINGTON -- President Clinton yesterday opened th door to a compromise with the military brass who have opposed his proposal to lift the gay ban in the nation's armed forces.
The intriguing hints at a subtle White House retreat came during Mr. Clinton's first formal White House news conference.
Asked about a proposal being pushed behind the scenes by the Joint Chiefs that would allow openly gay and lesbian people to be admitted to military service but restricted from combat, the president replied, without commenting on whether he favored such a plan, that it would probably be constitutional.
"I would think you could make appropriate distinctions on duty assignments once they're in [the service]," the president said. "The courts have historically given quite wide berth to the military to make judgments of that kind in terms of duty assignments."
That's not what gay activists had in mind when they extracted a pledge from Mr. Clinton during the 1992 campaign to revoke the ban on homosexuals. But Mr. Clinton ran into fierce opposition in the military and on Capitol Hill in the first two weeks of his administration over the issue. In a second question about this issue yesterday, he went even further in signaling that this was a possible way to defuse the issue.
Asked flatly if he "was prepared to support restrictions" on how homosexuals are deployed in the military, the president responded, that he might, if a current Defense Department report he commissioned makes that recommendation.
"I wouldn't rule that out, depending on what the grounds and arguments were," he said.
In a news conference dominated by Russia more than any single issue, the president was also asked about a host of domestic issues. They included the following:
* Supreme Court -- Asked whether he had a litmus test for retiring Justice Byron R. White's successor -- namely that his nominee be committed to keeping abortion legal -- the president said that while he wouldn't ask any nominee about a specific case, the answer, essentially, was yes.
"I will endeavor to appoint someone who has an attachment to -- a belief in -- a strong and broad constitutional right to privacy," the president said. Privacy, implied but not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, is what the Supreme Court has relied on in guaranteeing women the right to an abortion.
* Japanese trade -- When asked a fairly technical question about tariffs on Japanese-built minivans, the president unleashed a harsh criticism of Japan's entire trade policy.
"If you look at the history of American trade relationships, the one that never seems to change very much is the one with Japan," the president said. "The persistence of the surplus the Japanese enjoy with the United States and with the rest of the world can only lead one to the conclusion that the possibility of obtaining real, even access to the Japanese market is somewhat remote."
* The FBI -- Mr. Clinton denied that he had decided to sack FBI Director William S. Sessions but confirmed that the matter is under consideration.
"I have asked [Attorney General] Janet Reno to look into it," he said.
* Health care -- Mr. Clinton said no decision has been made on how to fund the health care coverage he wants extended to 30 million Americans who have no insurance.
He cited public opinion surveys that show Americans are willing to pay "somewhat more, a little more" in taxes to guarantee health coverage for them or their families.
"I can tell you this," he added. "I will not ask the American people to pay for a health care plan until the people who will be making money out of the changes that we propose are asked to give back some of the money they will make. Keep in mind these changes will save massive amounts of money immediately to some of the health care providers."