Obama extends benefits to gay workers

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PHILIP ELLIOTT
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama, whose gay and lesbian supporters have grown frustrated with his slow movement on their priorities, is extending benefits to same-sex partners of U.S. government employees, a White House official said.

Obama planned to announce his decision Wednesday, the official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because Obama had not signed a presidential memorandum putting his plan into place.

The decision is a political nod to a reliably Democratic voting bloc that has become impatient with the White House in recent weeks.

Several powerful gay fundraisers withdrew their support from a Democratic National Committee event June 25 where Vice President Joe Biden is expected to speak. Their exit came in response to a Justice Department brief last week that defended the Defense of Marriage Act, a prime target for gay and lesbian criticism.

The act defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. Two efffects of the law are that states are not required to recognize same sex marriages and the federal government may not treat same sex relationships as marriage even though they are recognized by states.

Gays and lesbians also fretted as the White House declined to intervene in the cases of enlisted military members facing courts-martial for defying the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. Gays and lesbians can serve in the military now if they do not disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexual behavior.

White House officials say they want Congress to repeal the policy as part of a “lasting and durable” solution, instead of intervening on individual cases.

“The president agreed that … the policy wasn’t working for our national interests, that he committed to change that policy, that he’s working with the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs on making that happen,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last month.

The administration has tried to make small, quiet moves to extend benefits to gays and lesbians. The State Department has promised to give partners of gay and lesbian diplomats many benefits, such as diplomatic passports and language training.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s promises left out financial benefits such as pensions. Obama’s move could make that shift.

Richard Socarides, a New York lawyer and former senior adviser on gay rights issues to President Bill Clinton, was taking a wait-and-see attitude on Obama’s announcement.

“If it doesn’t include health insurance, if he doesn’t talk about the military and about the (Justice Department) brief, I think it will fall short,” Socarides said in an e-mail late Tuesday. “Right now, people are looking for real action.”

John Berry, head of the Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking gay official in the administration, told a gay rally last weekend that Obama planned to take action on benefits soon.

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