The Obama Administration has endorsed a proposal that would eventually allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The full House and a Senate committee are expected to vote on measures that would repeal the 17-year-old policy of "don't ask, don't tell."
The change would not take effect until the Pentagon completes a review of how to implement the new policy.
Administration officials met quietly with gay rights activists Monday morning to discuss what one called "a way forward."
Who's In The Lead?
When President Obama renewed his campaign promise to undo the 1993 ban in January's State of the Union speech, he said it was up to Congress to make the change, because it was Congress who imposed the ban.
"This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," he said. "It's the right thing to do."
For its part, Congress has been waiting for the administration to take the lead. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both told lawmakers they support allowing gays to serve openly in uniform. But they have also cautioned against moving too quickly.
Gates urged lawmakers in a letter last month not to rewrite the law until the Pentagon has finished its own study on how to implement the change. That study is due to be finished in December.
Putting It To A Vote
Last week, the American Legion veterans group wrote to lawmakers warning against a change in "don't ask, don't tell." At a minimum, the group's Craig Roberts said, Congress should follow Gates' advice and wait for the Pentagon's review.
"What we're simply asking is that the commission be allowed to report on what findings they've come up with before any change in policy is enacted," Roberts said.
But some lawmakers are determined to act now. The Senate Armed Services Committee is set to reconsider the "don't ask, don't tell" policy this week, as it weighs the defense authorization bill. A similar measure could come up for a vote on the House floor.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary who is now with the Center for American Progress, an Obama-friendly think tank, said he supports a compromise that would have lawmakers repeal the ban on gays in the military now, but give the Pentagon leeway to implement the change after its study is complete.
"What would happen is it would be up to the executive branch and then the secretary of defense could say, 'OK, the ban's been repealed, but ... we're going to leave this policy in place until I complete my study on the first of December,' " Korb said.
The White House publicly endorsed that strategy Monday after a meeting with gay-rights activists. Budget Director Peter Orszag wrote in a letter to lawmakers the compromise meets the "critical need" of allowing the military to help shape the implementation process.
'Don't Wait, Don't Think'?
But any legislative action taken now, before the Pentagon study is complete, is sure to be controversial.
"I call it the strategy of 'don't wait, don't think.' Just vote for whatever," said Elaine Donnelly, who heads the nonprofit Center for Military Readiness, which opposes gays in the military. She thinks the timing of this week's votes is politically motivated.
"The president and many of the advocates of gays in the military are well aware that there is a window of opportunity that could close after the November election," she said.
Critics of repeal say with the country fighting two wars, this is no time to conduct what they call a social experiment on the military. But advocates for repeal also point to military necessity in making their case. With the armed services stretched thin, they argue, no one who wants to serve ought to be turned away.