WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration unleashed a multi-front attack yesterday on a new rule that requires the military to kick out of the service anyone infected with the AIDS virus.
That requirement was tucked into a $265 billion defense authorization bill that President Clinton is scheduled to sign today. Jack Quinn, the White House counsel, said Mr. Clinton could not veto the bill without jeopardizing national security, even though he finds the expulsion of HIV-infected service members "completely abhorrent and offensive."
The measure was sponsored by conservatives in the House, led by Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California. The White House strategy for combating it, outlined yesterday by Mr. Quinn and Assistant Attorney General Walter E. Dellinger, consists of these steps:
* Declining to enforce the statute -- which requires that HIV-positive people be honorably discharged within six months -- until the "last possible moment" before the law must be enforced.
* Working with members of Congress -- including Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Maryland Republican -- who are trying to rescind the requirement.
* Refusing to defend the law when it is challenged by some of the roughly 1,000 active military people known to have the human immunodeficiency virus.
Lawyers for gay rights groups said they would challenge the bill in court only if someone is actually discharged. If a court challenge began now, "it might let Congress off the hook," said Matthew Coles, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's project on gay rights and AIDS issues.
* Issuing executive orders to the military and Department of Veterans Affairs to offer job training and relocation benefits for HIV-positive personnel and their families and to grant disability pensions and health care if they are discharged.
"This provision is clearly discriminatory and wholly unwarranted," Clinton wrote.
The election-year politics of the issue were never far from the surface yesterday. Mr. Dornan, who has mounted a long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has campaigned for years against any expansion of gay rights. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the front-runner for the nomination, is said to detest the Dornan amendment, but he is pursuing support in Iowa from the Christian right and has not spoken out against it. For his part, Mr. Dornan argues that because service members )) with the AIDS virus cannot be sent on overseas deployments, they hurt morale and military readiness.
In rebuttal, the White House offered the words of Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who issued a statement that "discharging service members deemed fit for duty would waste the government's investment in the training of these individuals nTC and be disruptive to the military programs in which they play an integral role."
Criticism also came yesterday from Magic Johnson, the basketball star who is HIV-positive and who recently returned to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I am writing to you on behalf of a group of people that I've never met, but for whom I have the greatest respect and empathy -- the 1,049 members of the U.S. military, who, like me, just want to do their jobs and provide for their families," he wrote in a letter to Mr. Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Congress recently passed a defense bill that does a lot of good things for America -- and one very bad thing for those 1,049 people: It kicks them out of their jobs. And, to make matters worse, it cuts off all medical benefits to their spouses and children. This strikes me as a terrible injustice."