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Congressional Democrats to Wait on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

With Democrats poised to take over the White House and assume even bigger majorities in Congress next year, the gay community and its legislative allies appear to have finally gotten their chance to push through some of their most pressing issues.

But key Democrats — even openly gay lawmakers — are quietly conceding to letting another two years go by before trying to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the controversial 1993 law banning openly gay people from serving in the military. Most fear that moving too quickly on such a divisive issue could backfire, and most would rather tread lightly, at least in the early months of President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both have said the time is right to revisit the policy that Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped implement. But Pelosi, for one, refused to say whether she planned to bring legislation to the floor next year to overturn the law.

Powell said recently that “attitudes have changed” in the 15 years since the law was first installed. Congressional leaders have “an obligation to review the law” and ideally there will be “a very spirited review,” he said, adding, “I’m quite sure that’s what President-elect Obama will want to do.”

Asked to respond to Powell’s comments, Pelosi said last week, “I agree. I agree with Colin Powell.”

Democratic lawmakers regularly beg off questions about the contentious policy, arguing that other issues are far more important — such as winding down the war in Iraq or bolstering the economy. They also remember the political uproar when then-President Bill Clinton used the beginning of his presidency to try to overturn an outright ban on gays serving in the military. That effort tied his administration in knots in his first months in office, and Democrats fear a repeat performance.

Describing the military as “a unique institution,” Powell warned against reversing the policy until it can be fully reviewed by the Joint Chiefs, military commanders and the Defense secretary. He called on Obama to ask the Joint Chiefs to revisit the issue and make recommendations before making up his mind on how to proceed.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) last week said it could still be a few years before anything changes.

“It ought to be re-examined and it ought to be on the agenda, but it shouldn’t be very high on the agenda,” Levin said. “There are just too many other more important things to do.”

The incoming administration is pledging to review the policy at some point, but has signaled that it won’t be one of the first items out of the gate.

“I’m not making a commitment for the administration based on any timetable. But the commitments we made during the campaign to deal with these issues of equity and fairness, we will deliver on in our administration,” Vice President-elect Joseph Biden said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay Member of Congress, also has signaled that overturning the military policy would have to wait. Frank and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), also an openly gay lawmaker, are co-chairs of the recently formed House LGBT Equality Caucus.

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