WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, whose gay and lesbiansupporters have grown frustrated with his slow movement on theirpriorities, is extending benefits to same-sex partners of federalemployees but stopping short of a guarantee of full healthinsurance, a White House official said.
Obama planned to announce his decision Wednesday in the OvalOffice, the official said. The official spoke on the condition ofanonymity because Obama had not signed a presidential memorandumputting his plan into place.
The decision is a political nod to a reliably Democratic votingbloc that has become impatient with the White House in recentweeks.
Several powerful gay fundraisers withdrew their support from aDemocratic National Committee event June 25 where Vice PresidentJoe Biden is expected to speak. Their exit came in response to aJustice Department brief last week that defended the Defense ofMarriage Act, a prime target for gay and lesbian criticism.
At the White House, Robert Gibbs defended that brief, whichcompared gay unions with incestuous relationships. Gibbs said theadministration was responsible for upholding all laws, even thosethe president opposes.
Gays and lesbians also fretted as the White House declined tointervene in the cases of enlisted military members facingcourts-martial for defying the Clinton-era "don't ask, don'ttell" policies. Gays and lesbians can serve in the military now ifthey do not disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexualbehavior.
White House officials say they want Congress to repeal thepolicy as part of a "lasting and durable" solution, instead ofintervening on individual cases.
"The president agreed that ... the policy wasn't working forour national interests, that he committed to change that policy,that he's working with the secretary of defense and the jointchiefs on making that happen," White House spokesman Robert Gibbssaid last month.
The administration has tried to make small, quiet moves toextend benefits to gays and lesbians. The State Department haspromised to give partners of gay and lesbian diplomats manybenefits, such as diplomatic passports and language training.
But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's promises leftout financial benefits such as pensions.
Obama's move Wednesday would direct the State Department to takeinto account same-sex couples and their children when assigninghousing for foreign service officers. Those same-sex partners alsowould be allowed access to medical facilities at diplomatic postsabroad -- all end-runs around Congress' limit on benefits.
White House officials said Obama would respect existing laws,which block many benefits such as health care. But the decisionwould allow employees' domestic partners to be added to agovernment insurance program that pays for long-term conditions,such as Alzheimer's disease.
The memorandum also would allow employees to use sick leave totake care of domestic partners and their children.
"If it doesn't include health insurance, if he doesn't talkabout the military and about the (Justice Department) brief, Ithink it will fall short," Socarides said in an e-mail lateTuesday. "Right now, people are looking for real action."
John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management and thehighest-ranking gay official in the administration, told a gayrally last weekend that Obama planned to take action on benefitssoon.