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White House, Nunn Forge Final Agreement on Lifting Gay Ban

By David Lauter
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration, military leaders and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., reached final agreement Thursday night on a new policy to suspend the ban on military service by homosexuals.

At the same time, federal District Judge Terry Hatter Jr., ruling in the highly publicized case of Navy Petty Officer Keith Meinhold, declared the gay ban unconstitutional, saying it violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The ruling marked the first time the government had been forced by a court to reinstate a gay service member.

Legally, Hatter's decision applies only in the portions of California covered by his court's jurisdiction, but politically, it is certain to strengthen the hands of President Clinton and others seeking to end the ban nationwide.

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin repeatedly has warned military leaders that they should seek a compromise with Clinton rather than face the likelihood that the ban would eventually be overturned by judicial fiat. "My argument to the military is sooner or later, the courts are going to come at you on this issue," Aspin said in a recent television interview.

Under the new policy, which Clinton is expected to announce Friday, the military will:

--Stop asking new recruits about their sexual orientation.

--Will suspend investigations to ferret out gays in uniform.

--Will suspend current cases seeking to discharge gays, so long as those cases are based solely on homosexual status rather than on any improper conduct.

Clinton will not formally lift the ban, however, for six months, giving Congress time to hold hearings on the issue.

Clinton had hoped to announce his new policy on military service by gays Thursday, but was prevented from doing so by last-minute haggling, primarily involving Nunn, White House and Pentagon officials said.

"The effort so far has been to fix the process and create the conditions for a good faith effort to see if this policy can work. Agreement has been reached a couple of times and Nunn has been the sticking point," an aide to Les Aspin said some hours before the final agreement was reached.

Officials said that Nunn had raised objections to the policy even after the uniformed service chiefs had agreed to it.

He finally came on board, however, after a Capitol Hill meeting with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and several other Democrats at which they hammered out final language on how the military should handle cases of avowed gays between now and Clinton's eventual final order.

Nunn's approval was crucial because congressional Republicans have continued to threaten to force a vote on a bill that would tie Clinton's hands by writing the ban on gay service into law. With Nunn's support, White House officials were confident that they could easily put off any such move. But if Nunn had balked, a bill to codify the ban probably would have passed the Senate, officials said.