MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
We're going to take a moment now to look back at one of the promises Mr. Obama made on the campaign trail, and whether he will deliver now that he's President Obama. The promise was to work to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. That's the Clinton-era law that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the military.
As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, if it happens, it may not be anytime soon.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: On the eve of becoming White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs was asked a direct question: Would the new president repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Gibbs replied, you don't hear a politician give a one-word answer much, but it's yes.
That was music to the ears of Aubrey Sarvis. He's director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is fighting to overturn the law. Sarvis says he's talking regularly with Mr. Obama's staff, encouraging them to keep their word.
NORRIS: I said to the White House, this is doable; repeal is doable in a smart way this year.
LOUISE KELLY: This year - but President Obama can't just sign an executive order to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell, it's a law. He has to persuade Congress to change it. And Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, says he does not expect the issue to be an early priority for lawmakers.
NORRIS: I'm going to be working with colleagues to see how much support there is for it, and where along the process we can take that issue up. I just don't think we can give that a high priority, given the situation that we face.
LOUISE KELLY: The situation that we face - meaning, the country is in the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown. Even the staunchest supporters of repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell concede they may have to wait.
Here's Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat who's sponsoring legislation on the House side to lift the ban.
NORRIS: I readily admit that this is a significant priority, but not necessarily one while you're triaging and people are losing their homes and their jobs.
LOUISE KELLY: Another question is whether military leaders are ready to see the law repealed. Since it was passed in 1993, more than two dozen retired admirals and generals have come forward to say it should be. That includes John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Colin Powell, also a former chair of the Joint Chiefs, argues that attitudes have evolved since his days on active duty. And current Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there's no question the Armed Forces will follow the lead of Congress and their commander in chief.
NORRIS: Don't Ask, Don't Tell is law; it is a political decision and if the law changes, we will comply with the law.
LOUISE KELLY: But Congressman Joe Wilson points to a statement the Pentagon issued last summer. Wilson is the top Republican for personnel matters on the House Armed Services Committee. The statement he cites says the Defense Department does not advocate overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell. It adds, quote, executing a change in law at this time would be problematic, given the intense engagement of our leaders and our forces in prosecuting the global war on terror.
NORRIS: And I agree with that.
LOUISE KELLY: Congressman Wilson.
NORRIS: And what I would tell you is that it is a policy that appears to be working.
LOUISE KELLY: This is still a widely held view among lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats. They make the argument that with wars ongoing in Afghanistan and Iraq, now is not the best time to reignite a controversial, possibly disruptive, debate within the military. But Democrat Ellen Tauscher says nonsense.
NORRIS: I would only say that it is always the right time to right a wrong; and this has been a very big wrong.
LOUISE KELLY: The congresswoman calls repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, quote, the last big piece of civil rights legislation left. She plans to introduce that legislation as early as next week. But she's still waiting to see when the Obama White House will start fighting to allow gays to serve openly in the U.S. Armed Services.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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