Clinton delays Senate clash on gays

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton seemed last night to be backing away from ordering an immediate and outright end to the ban on homosexuals in the US military. Such a move would risk a bruising, unwanted trial of strength with Congress that could slow down his economic reforms and other key parts of his legislative programme.

After a long White House meeting with Congressional leaders, including Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the most influential opponents of the measure, Mr Clinton indicated that he had agreed to delay for six months a final order removing the ban, to allow hearings on Capitol Hill into every aspect of the vexed question.

It is expected that Mr Clinton may yet announce two important interim steps: an immediate halt to questioning of new recruits over their sexual behaviour, and an end to the quasi-automatic practice of discharging servicemen who admit to homosexuality. An expected announcement by the President last night was postponed, however.

Indicating that he had accepted some delay, Mr Clinton said it was reasonable for the military leadership to 'have six months to deal with the practical issues involved'. During a brief exchange with photo-journalists he said: 'These are not issues that are free of difficulty.' The President reaffirmed his belief, however, that discrimination should end. 'People should be disqualified from serving in the military based on something they do, not based on who they are,' he commented.

So high are passions running that Mr Clinton's olive branch may not end the controversy. A majority of the Senate is clearly against the proposal, and Republican leaders are threatening to bring in a countermanding bill if the White House goes ahead. Of no less import is the affair's impact on Mr Clinton's relations with the Pentagon.

Despite the best efforts of the Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, to defuse the row - he met service chiefs once more yesterday - General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remains adamantly against an end to the ban. On Capitol Hill, a graphic video, The Gay Agenda, is circulating, reputedly at the instigation of the Marine Corps, as part of a lobbying effort to underline the practical consequences of avowed homosexuals in uniform.

Nor does the Pentagon-White House friction end there. According to the Washington Post, Gen Powell is on the verge of issuing a report challenging Mr Clinton's claim that big defence savings can be made by eliminating 'redundant' military capacity in the post- Cold War era. He is also believed to have grave doubts about the wisdom of American intervention in Bosnia, supported elsewhere in the administration.

For the moment though, it is the gay issue which monopolises the headlines, largely because of the vacuum left by Mr Clinton's failure to deliver an immediate economic plan. Opinion polls suggest the issue has split the country down the middle, and is affecting the President's own popularity.

At 58 per cent, his approval rating is about normal for a new President. But a 20 per cent disapproval rating is much higher than those of previous incumbents so early on in their administration - another sign of how the argument over gays in the military is turning into a debate on the position of homosexuals in society at large.

San Francisco, epicentre of the American gay movement, on Wednesday night offered the unusual spectacle of hundreds of homosexuals marching through the streets in support of a President. Their satisfaction can only have been increased by reports that Mr Clinton is about to name Roberta Achtenberg, a top city official who is a lesbian and outspoken gay rights advocate, as an assistant secretary at the Housing Department. It would be the most senior government appointment of an avowed homosexual to date.