WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration may be losing political control of its proposal to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the United States military.
As high-profile Senate hearings on the subject continue, even some congressional allies of the White House are becoming discouraged. The hearings, particularly those held by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, have been "a disaster," says one legislative source who favors allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
Clinton officials have provided no witnesses and little leadership for lawmakers who support lifting the current ban on gays. The White House instead cites an ongoing Defense Department study of the issue. The department is to draft an executive order for the president by July 15.
Senator Nunn and some other lawmakers have suggested a compromise whereby recruits would not be asked their sexual orientation. Openly gay military personnel would still be subject to discharge, however.
This limbo situation is already current policy, as the military awaits a final presidential decision. Gay rights advocates have strenuously objected to it, saying it would force gays in the military to continue to live a lie.
Meanwhile, well-known national figures such as retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf have appeared before Nunn's hearings and argued emotionally for keeping current policy.
"Nunn didn't even have to hijack this issue," says the congressional source. "It's like we said, `Here are the keys, Sam. Take the car.' "
Clinton has the executive power to order the ban ended on his own. But Republican lawmakers have said they would push legislation reinstating the gay exclusion if Clinton does this.
It is not clear how a congressional bill on the issue would fare. Conservatives such as Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D) of Mississippi have warned proponents of gay rights not to push them too far. "I'm not sure you could win an up-or-down vote," Mr. Montgomery said in a House hearing on the subject last week.
Public opinion polls tend to be either indecisively split on gay rights or leaning toward disapproval. A recent USA Today survey found 41 percent of respondents supported President Clinton's position.
If nothing else, the congressional hearings on this subject have revealed one fact: Whatever happens, debate will not end. The gays-in-the-military issue is becoming as emotional and polarized as the long-standing national debate over abortion rights.
Opponents of lifting the ban have portrayed the effort as something that would inevitably damage the military by undermining the cohesion of combat units, and thus threaten US national security.
General Schwarzkopf has been perhaps the most effective public proponent of this view. On Tuesday he presented himself as a moderate because, he said, he does not anathematize gays. But with his familiar bluntness he left no doubt where he stood.
"In every case that I'm familiar with ... when it became known in a unit that someone was openly homosexual, polarization occurred, violence sometimes followed, morale broke down, and sometimes unit effectiveness suffered," Schwarzkopf said.
Proponents of allowing homosexuals in the military present the issue as one of civil rights. Opposition to gays, in their view, is based on blatant prejudice - on the ill-informed view, they say, that gay men in particular are chain-swinging, leather-clad seducers of children.
Proponents say the gays that have joined the military and kept their orientation secret over the years are mostly hard-working people who serve their country. For comparison, they point out that most heterosexual military members are not like the Navy pilots who pawed women at the infamous Tailhook convention.
"Sexual orientation does not equal sexual misconduct," retired Army Col. Karl Cropsey, who hid his homosexuality during his career, told the House last week.
One key point of disagreement appears to be the very nature of homosexuality. Those who would keep gays out of the military, such as Schwarzkopf, have almost universally told legislators that they believe people choose to be gay, that it is a lifestyle.
Most of the pro-gay witnesses have said, on the other hand, that they believe homosexuality to be innate, a combination of biology and environment that they cannot change, even if they wished it.