LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
President-elect Barack Obama will inherit an issue that inflamed passions during the first months of Bill Clinton's presidency. Clinton campaigned on a promise to lift a long-standing ban on gays in the military, but the Pentagon brass resisted. That led to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which only excludes openly gay people from the armed forces.
Mr. Obama said during his campaign he felt the policy discriminates against gays, and he wants to end it. In our latest "Memo to the President," NPR's David Welna looks at how Mr. Obama may go about that.
DAVID WELNA: Mr. President-elect, you rarely spoke out as a candidate against Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But when the group Human Rights Campaign asked you about it a year ago, you said this, "America is ready to get rid of the don't ask, don't tell policy. All that is required is leadership." Then in July, when the "Military Times" asked you about ending that policy, you sounded a bit more conciliatory.
(Soundbite of "Military Times" interview)
President-elect BARACK OBAMA (United States): This is not something that I'm looking to shove down the military's throats. I want to make sure that we are doing it in a thoughtful and principled way. But I do believe that at a time when we are short-handed, that everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States, and can do so effectively, can perform critical functions, should have the opportunity to do so.
WELNA: Since Don't Ask, Don't Tell's debut 15 years ago, more than 12,000 gay service members have been expelled, but Great Britain and Israel now let gays serve openly. And 75 percent of Americans say they support gays in the military, compared to only 44 percent in 1993.
Retired General Colin Powell is also having second thoughts. On CNN, Powell acknowledged advocating Don't Ask, Don't Tell when he chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton.
(Soundbite of CNN interview)
General COLIN POWELL (Retired General, Joint Chief of Staff): But it's been 15 years, and attitudes have changed. And so I think it is time for the Congress, since it is their law, to have a full review of it. And I'm quite sure that's what President-elect Obama will want to do.
WELNA: Massachusetts House Democrat Barney Frank, who's openly gay, says Congress should take on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, just not right away.
Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): I'm confident we'll be able to repeal that in the first Congress, in the first two years. But I think the priority has to be to get the Iraq policy set, and then move to repeal it.
WELNA: Clearly, there's concern among advocates that moving too quickly on gays in the military could damage your debut, just as it did Bill Clinton's. Retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett is one of more than a hundred admirals and generals who signed a statement released last month demanding that Don't Ask, Don't Tell be repealed. But Barnett says it's important that your administration first lay the groundwork for such a repeal.
Rear Admiral JAMIE BARNETT (Retired Rear Admiral, U.S. Army): I think that they're going to want to talk to a lot of people, including the military leaders - talk about how it can be implemented, what the ramifications and implications are, and how they can go forth on a step-by-step process. And I personally would not ask for anything more than that.
WELNA: In any case, it would take an act of Congress to do away with don't ask, don't tell. And while the next Congress will have a lot more Democrats, you cannot, as President Obama, expect all of them to vote for repeal. You'll also have quite a few Republican lawmakers who see no need for a change. Just listen to Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I think the policy is working well. I haven't sensed that the military is calling for a change, so I don't - would not favor changing the policy, based on what I know today.
WELNA: It's also unknown, Mr. President-elect, how much support you'll get from your top military leaders. Here's some advice from Aubrey Sarvis, who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Mr. AUBREY SARVIS (Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network): I would say continue to reach out to the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs to seek a favorable recommendation from them for the House bill.
WELNA: That House bill is blandly named the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, and you've promised to throw your administration's weight behind it. It would lift the ban on gays in the military.
Representative ELLEN TAUSCHER (Democrat, California): I think everybody knows it's going to happen. The question isn't when, it's really how.
WELNA: That's the bill's lead sponsor, California House Democrat Ellen Tauscher. She says she doesn't have enough House sponsors right now for it to pass, but she predicts that that will change once you're sworn in as president.
Representative TAUSCHER: We'll reintroduce the bill. We've got about 145 sponsors now. We hope to move toward the 218 that we're going to need to pass it. We need a Senate sponsor of similar legislation, and we'll begin to do what Congress does.
WELNA: Which would be to hold hearings in the spring. But Tauscher and others say they're really looking to you, Mr. President-elect, to thread the needle on this. First, to get everyone on board who needs to be, then to lead the push for a repeal. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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