WASHINGTON -- The Senate opened committee hearings yesterday on military service by gays and lesbians, with powerful Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., offering a compromise: The military would stop asking about sexual orientation but would continue to require homosexuals to keep their preferences secret.
Mr. Nunn's offer appeared to be an opening bargaining stance on the highly contentious issue. It is far from any position gay rights groups and the White House are likely to consider acceptable.
But the suggestion did quickly help frame debate over what has been the most explosive issue of Mr. Clinton's young presidency.
Mr. Nunn said that making any change in the gay ban is unwise. But he backed the widely circulated "don't ask-don't tell" compromise as one that would at least be the lesser of other evils.
"I see problems with every direction, from backward to forward to standing still," Mr. Nunn told reporters at the end of nearly seven hours of testimony by legal experts. "But I see less problem with that [option]."
Yesterday's session of the Armed Service Committee, which Mr. Nunn chairs, was the first of hearings expected to stretch many months. The opening witnesses told lawmakers that, in a legal showdown between the executive and legislative branches over the issue, Congress would have the upper hand.
"The courts are much more eager to defer to Congress," in controversial cases involving the military, said David A. Schleuter, a law professor from St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. "No one envies you in having to decide this very emotional issue."
At the same time, legal experts said that if Congress is going to play a role in the debate, it must provide detailed guidance to the White House and military services on whether and how to integrate gays in military ranks.
If it does not, warned one expert, the courts may abandon a long tradition of deference and step into the fray.
"One can tend to underestimate the tendency of the judiciary to see a problem and move to deal with it," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington.
Several lawmakers grilled experts on existing legal precedents that would help answer such questions as whether the military would be legally obliged to provide separate housing and bathing facilities for homosexual and heterosexual soldiers.
Civil rights activists and gay and lesbian groups yesterday criticized the hearings for their narrow focus.