WASHINGTON — ONE week into his term in office, President Clinton is getting a fast lesson in Washington's ability to hijack the White House political agenda.
First came the quick demise of his nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, after public outrage grew over her hiring of illegal aliens for child care. And now Mr. Clinton's promise to allow homosexuals in the military is facing concerted opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a flanking attack from Capitol Hill.
Clinton may have thought that lifting the ban on gays would simply involve a stroke of the pen on an executive order, and a few days of Pentagon grumbling in the press. Instead he is facing the possibility that lawmakers of his own party might block one of his first major actions.
"This is going to have to be played out in Congress," predicts a Pentagon official involved in the issue.
Legislation could override any Clinton action to allow homosexuals in the service. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin admitted in a television interview over the weekend that the administration would now lose such a vote - and Republican lawmakers would be happy to force the issue.
The extent of the revolt can be seen in the fact that a senior Democrat who was widely mentioned as a possible secretary of defense, Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, is prepared to defy the president over ending the ban. In the days when political parties had more cohesion, such opposition so early in a new president's term would have been extremely rare.
Senator Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he will hold hearings on the issue in March. "My strongly held view is that the current policy has good reason for it, but I also think that other views should be heard," he said.
Currently the White House plans a two-step approach to allowing homosexuals in the military. In the first step, Clinton would simply order that recruits no longer be asked about their sexual orientation, and that discharges of homosexuals be stopped. The second step, an executive order formalizing the end of Pentagon discrimination against homosexuals, would come only after extensive consultation with the Joint Chiefs about what kind of behavior could be allowed.
Should same-sex couples be allowed to hold hands on base? Would they be allowed military benefits equal to heterosexual couples? Would different arrangements be made for living quarters?
"The behavior standard is a good one," notes James Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor of government and decorated Vietnam veteran.
Such a standard could strike at the heart of military objections to gays. That homosexuals are already in the service no one doubts; otherwise there would be no discharges for homosexuality. (The Defense Department expels on average 1,500 men and women a year on homosexuality charges.) What many in the armed forces worry about are sexual harassment of males by males and flagrant gay behavior they say they would find offensive, if gays are allowed out of the military closet.
Some critics of the military's stance on the issue say they find these worries ironic. They feel that females in the US military already are subjected to many of these offenses in what is a traditionally macho service culture.
"It's interesting now to see men so worried about sexual harassment," says Ruth Colker, a Tulane University law professor and expert on lesbian and gay rights.
Pentagon officials insist that military life is different from civilian experience and deserves to be treated differently. Military personnel give up a certain amount of privacy; fighting ability depends crucially on the morale and cohesion of small groups.
Whether one likes it or not, they claim, putting known gays into such a situation risks resentment, fear, and creeping mistrust.
The Pentagon also feels it has public opinion behind it. Telegrams and letters are pouring in to the office of the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Colin Powell, with most of them supporting his position.
Part of the reason Clinton is facing the problems he is on this issue is that both Congress and the Joint Chiefs feel they were not consulted. Pentagon officials say that the first time they got a chance to express their views on gays was last week, in a meeting with Mr. Aspin.
The heads of the services say they do not feel they will necessarily have an adversarial relationship with Clinton. But it was clear that no minds were changed in their first meeting with the new chief executive on Jan. 25. Clinton insists he will press ahead with his plans to lift the gay ban.
With United States troops deployed in Somalia, and the Balkans war only getting worse, "it's unfortunate that this gay issue is occupying so much of everybody's time," says a military official.