WASHINGTON -- With few hours to spare, Defense Secretary Les Aspin delivered his final proposal last night to President Clinton on easing the military's ban on homosexuals.
The proposal, which -- if adopted by Mr. Clinton -- is certain to infuriate both gays and conservatives, was carried by Mr. Aspin to the White House about 8 p.m., barely four hours before the expiration of a July 15 deadline set by the president.
Although administration aides refused to divulge most details of what they called a "don't ask, don't tell" compromise, one top official said last night that the White House had made two major decisions:
* Current language declaring that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service" would be dropped. Instead, "homosexual conduct" would be judged as incompatible.
* No blanket exemption would be given for off-duty, off-base conduct.
Mr. Aspin and Mr. Clinton were still discussing last night exceptions to the "don't tell" rule, the official said. They were considering, for example, whether gays could discuss their homosexuality with chaplains, doctors and lawyers without risking expulsion from the military, the official said.
The last-minute discussions revolved around issues raised by Attorney General Janet Reno, who The Sun reported yesterday was concerned about the constitutionality of restrictions on the free-speech right of gay men and women in the armed services.
Mr. Clinton told congressional leaders yesterday that he wanted to take two or three more days to study the recommendation before he gives his final approval, the New York Times reported. He also wants Ms. Reno and her aides to review it once more before he signs off on it, the Times quoted officials as saying.
White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers predicted before the proposal arrived that it was "probably unlikely" that the president would seek a blanket lifting of the 50-year-old ban, as he had promised in last year's campaign.
Pentagon officials, meantime, disclosed that the administration had decided to implement any new policy Oct. 1, after the retirement of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose term is to expire the day before. But they insisted that the timing had nothing to do with the departure of the four-star general, who, along with the other chiefs, contends that a full repeal of the ban would harm discipline and combat readiness.
One senior official explained the October effective date by saying it would give the military brass enough time to brief all unit commanders, who are likely to have considerable discretion in enforcing the policy.
Another official suggested that the administration wanted to give members of Congress enough time to review the new policy, let off steam or even try to overturn it. This official said the White House expected Congress to acquiesce in the new policy.
Amid the last-minute maneuvering between the Pentagon and the White House, more than 100 gay activists, including some veterans, rallied in a last-ditch plea to Mr. Clinton to end discrimination in the military.
They gathered by the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial bearing rainbow flags and emotionally charged rhetoric condemning the Pentagon compromise. But some conceded that the likelihood that Mr. Clinton would satisfy their demands was now "a high-risk bet."
"This is our final appeal to a president who made a promise," said Tanya L. Domi, a lesbian and former Army captain. "We are asking him to keep that promise."
On Wednesday, Mr. Aspin spent 2 1/2 hours at the White House discussing alternatives he had worked out with the military leadership, including variations on an existing policy statement that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service," Pentagon officials said.
Mr. Aspin has preferred a change in wording so that homosexual "conduct" is deemed incompatible with military service, with a strong assertion in any policy document that gays already have served with distinction. He also has conveyed the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "conduct" should be defined as homosexual acts, marriages and both public and private statements.
Navy Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said Mr. Aspin spent most of yesterday working on a single policy recommendation for Mr. Clinton, saying the administration had gone beyond talking about "options."
Mr. Clinton has been warned repeatedly by Mr. Aspin and others not to alienate the military leadership and key members of Congress, such as Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, by redeeming his unqualified campaign pledge to end the military's ban on gays.
When the issue exploded after he appeared to snub the chiefs in his first week in office, Mr. Clinton ordered a Pentagon study and gave Mr. Aspin until July 15 to draft an executive order "to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" in the military.
In another last-minute effort to seek repeal of the homosexual ban, Rep. Patricia Schroeder urged Mr. Clinton to heed Ms. Reno. The Sun reported yesterday that Ms. Reno had expressed doubts about the Justice Department's ability to defend a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in court.
"The secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs have spent six months and over a million taxpayer dollars to create a compromise that's unconstitutional," the Colorado Democrat said. "The president should instead read his Constitution and listen to his attorney general, who has advised him that "don't ask, don't tell" violates an individual's First Amendment rights to free speech."