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In giving same-sex partners benefits, Obama walks a tightrope

Gay-rights advocates want the president to live up to his campaign promises, but he might be wary of taking up their cause with so much already on his plate.

By Staff writer / June 17, 2009

President Obama speaks before signing a presidential memorandum that extended federal benefits to same- sex partners during a ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington Wednesday.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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Washington

President Obama signed a presidential memorandum Wednesday extending some benefits to same-sex partners of government employees. Though the memorandum does not offer full healthcare or retirement benefits to partners, it marks Mr. Obama’s biggest step since taking office toward fulfilling campaign promises that he would advance gay rights.

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Gay rights advocates applaud the steps but are not shouting for joy. Obama had made big promises as a presidential candidate, and he has waited months to delivery anything, they argue.

Analysts surmise that the Obama administration is behaving cautiously on gay rights so as not to jeopardize its ambitious agenda on the economy, healthcare, and foreign policy. Though opinion polls show a warming to gay rights, including same-sex marriage and gays in the military, Obama appears sensitive to not getting ahead of public sentiment. Team Obama well remembers the flap in President Clinton’s early days when he proposed allowing gays to serve in the military.

Gay-rights advocates losing patience

But the gay-rights community, big supporters of Obama’s presidential campaign, is losing patience. Some gay donors are withdrawing from a Democratic fundraiser next week in an effort to pressure the administration.

On a conference call with reporters before Obama’s announcement, John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest ranking openly gay member of the administration, defended Obama’s action.

“This is a first step, not a final step,” Mr. Berry said, explaining the amount of time it has taken for Obama to make a move.

Berry outlined the changes: For civil service employees, domestic partners of federal employees can be added to the long-term care insurance program. Supervisors can also be required to allow employees to use their sick leave to take care of domestic partners and nonbiological, nonadopted children. For Foreign Service employees, new benefits for partners include the use of medical facilities at posts abroad, medical evacuation, and inclusion in family size for housing allocations.

Obama's record

As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to fight hard for gay rights – though not same-sex marriage – but as president he has behaved cautiously. He has yet to make a move toward repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans openly gay people from serving in the military, even though he promised to during the campaign.

As a senator, Obama also supported repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a 1996 law that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages. But last Friday, the Obama administration sorely disappointed gay-rights advocates when the Justice Department filed a legal brief in support of DOMA.

A Justice Department spokesman, asked about the filing, said it was routine for the government to back an existing law in court; it is up to Congress to repeal the law. But gay-rights advocates argue that the Obama administration could have behaved differently toward a pending court case on gay marriage.

In a statement made by Obama Wednesday, he said, "I stand by my long-standing commitment to work with Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. It's discriminatory, it interferes with states' rights, and it's time we overturned it."

Obama also announced support for legislation introduced last month in both houses of Congress that would extend equal benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees already enjoyed by opposite-sex spouses.