Clinton near deal on gay soldiers: Homosexuals likely to be allowed to serve if they promise not to tell QBY: RUPERT CORNWELL in Washington

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THE moment of truth in the emotive, politically perilous controversy over homosexuals in the military is at hand for President Clinton. In essence, he must either endorse a conservative Pentagon proposal that will infuriate gay rights advocates, or risk confrontation with both his military chiefs and the Senate majority opposed to sweeping changes in the current rules.

Today is the deadline for Les Aspin, the Defense Secretary, to present his recommendations. Mr Clinton's search for a compromise may hold up his own decision for a day or two. But one thing is clear: there is next to no chance that he will keep his promise to lift the ban and allow homosexuals in the armed services without restriction.

Instead all the signs point to a version of the 'Don't ask, Don't tell' approach which is the most that the Joint Chiefs, and important congressmen, are prepared to stomach. Gays and lesbians would be allowed to serve, but only on condition they kept their sexual preference a secret.

According to Pentagon officials, the main concession would be a change in the language of current military regulations. In future these would stipulate that 'homosexual conduct', as opposed to 'homosexuality', was incompatible with service. But while screening of recruits and witch-hunts of suspects would stop, declarations of homosexuality would still be forbidden. So too would homosexual behaviour, both on and off base.

This new formulation has been presented to gay-rights leaders. Their reaction was predictably angry; the changes, according to Thomas Stoddart, head of the Campaign for Military Service group, were merely cosmetic, and would amount to 'a capitulation to bigotry and political expediency'.

Some gay advocates cling to the hope that Mr Clinton will insist on further changes, and undoubtedly he would like to. But to demand a more liberal policy would risk antagonising conservative Democrats at the very moment he needs his party's undivided support for final passage of his deficit-cutting budget package, on which congressmen begin negotiations today.