WASHINGTON -- President Obama says he wants to reverse "Don't Ask Don't Tell," the Clinton-era policy that prevents openly gay men and women from serving in the military. But so far the White House has been noncommittal about how and when he will try to make that happen.
In an effort to prod the president and Congress to act, activists -- gay, straight, military and civilian -- will converge on Capitol Hill Friday to rally behind an effort in the House to overturn the policy, which has been a continuing source of controversy since it became law 15 years ago.
"The repeal, it is possible this year -- certainly doable in this Congress within the next two years," predicted Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), which defends gay men and women in the military who are affected by the policy.
Organizers said several retired military officers, members of Congress and individuals who were discharged under Don't Ask Don't Tell will speak at the noon rally on the Capitol lawn in support of The Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a bill recently introduced by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., that would overturn the policy.
"This is an important civil rights issue. We also need the strongest military possible, and we need to recruit the best and brightest Americans. Some happen to be gay," Tauscher said Monday.
Supporters of the bill say Don't Ask Don't Tell not only affects capable people currently serving, but it discourages future recruits at a time when military readiness has been stretched thin.
"This is about strength, about the fighting power of the military. It's about numbers and about kicking qualified people out of the military," said Brian McGough, senior legislative adviser to VoteVets.org, a veteran-run political action committee and action fund that has helped to elect Democrats over the last two election cycles. SLDN organizers consider VoteVets.org one of its key "straight" allies in its Capitol Hill campaign.
But opposition to having homosexuals serve openly in the Armed Forces remains very strong.
An open-door policy on gays in the military would throw the ranks into turmoil, the bill's opponents say.
"The ban is in place for a reason -- open homosexuality poses many problems to good order, discipline and unit cohesion," says Robert Knight, a senior writer for Coral Ridge Ministries and former head of the Culture and Family Institute in Washington.
"There is going to be some be some very heavy pushback from people in the military and civilians (on this) ... this is a train wreck waiting to happen."
Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness, insisted the military doesn't want to lift the ban.
"We've been warning of this for many months," she said, adding that Obama's openness to overturning Don't Ask Don't Tell has recharged gay rights activists who for years have been thwarted in their attempts to force a gay agenda on an unwitting military.
Donnelly cited a recent poll in Military Times that showed 58 percent of its readers oppose the idea of an openly gay service, with 10 percent saying they would not re-enlist if the ban were lifted.
"We can't afford to lose that many good people in the military," Donnelly said.
But critics say the poll results were gleaned from the magazine's readership, and did not reflect the current active-duty demographic, which they say would include younger servicemembers who may be more tolerant of gay rights and are already serving side-by-side with gays.
The SLDN estimates that nearly 13,000 members of the military have been "outed" and discharged since Don't Ask Don't Tell went into effect in 1994. At that time, President Clinton, hoping to relax the 1980s-era regulations that barred gays from serving in the military, ended up compromising with Congress, creating a law that permits gays to serve provided they keep their sexuality secret. Their commanders, in turn, are barred from asking about it.
"In some ways (Clinton) made it more complicated," Sarvis said, explaining that a lot of gays entered the military thinking they could handle the policy but succumbed to the anxiety and stress of being outed.
"We have thousands more each year who leave the service out of their own volition," he said. "They just got tired of serving under Don't Ask Don't Tell."
Critics of the policy say discharging gays after they are recruited and trained has cost the military at least $363 million since 1994. They also point to operational losses -- more than 60 much-needed Arab linguists have been dismissed in recent years.
As of Wednesday, Tauscher's bill had more than 115 co-sponsors. But are Democrats even girding for the fight? Supporters and opponents of the bill alike acknowledge that repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell can hardly be a priority for the White House or Congress amid an economic crisis and two ongoing wars.
"This is a presidency with a full to an overflowing plate of controversial items already," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
He said abolishing Don't Ask Don't Tell will be "inevitable" during this administration, but timing is everything.
"I doubt [Obama will] want to risk a backlash that could endanger his plans for the economy, health care, energy and other things," he said.
Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, held hearings on Don't Ask Don't Tell last summer and is a co-sponsor of Tauscher's bill. A spokesman for Davis said she plans to hold more hearings on the issue this year, but she would not commit to holding hearings specifically on the bill.
Sources say a potential roadblock at the committee level is the panel's chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo. Skelton supports a review, but he also continues to support Don't Ask Don't Tell, his spokeswoman said..
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supports a repeal but has expressed doubt that now is the right time to pursue it.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., ranking member on the military personnel subcommittee, said he is not averse to holding hearings, either, but maintains his support for the current policy.
"I do agree with the military and others that while our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are engaged in major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, such a change today could pose an undue challenge."
Editor's Note: Do to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rep. Susan Davis would not commit to Rep. Tauscher's bill. Davis is a co-sponsor of the bill.