The Defense Department next week will propose for the first time a "way forward" on lifting the military's ban on gays from serving openly, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Thursday.
President Barack Obama has vowed to work with Congress this year to repeal the 1993 law, but Democrats have been waiting to hear from the military on how it could be done.
In special hourlong testimony next Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen were expected to outline steps the military will take to lessen the impact on a force fighting two wars and inform Congress on how it could be done.
"The secretary and the chairman have and will continue to work on an implementation plan, and we'll be able to share (details) with you early next week," Morrell said.
Between 1997 and 2008, the Defense Department fired more than 10,500 service members for violating the policy. The number of dismissals dropped sharply after the 2001 terrorist attacks as forces were heavily deployed around the world, with half as many troops fired in 2008 as in 2001.
Obama has promised to repeal the law but has done little to press the issue in his first year as president. In his national address on Wednesday, Obama drew a standing ovation from Congress and Gates when he suggested that would change.
"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama said Wednesday during his State of the Union address. "It's the right thing to do."
Next week's hearing would make good on that pledge. But short of a promise to suspend dismissals, gay rights' activists are likely to remain frustrated.
"The time for broad statements is over. The time to get down to business is overdue," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Richard Socarides, a Clinton adviser who has been a vocal critic of how Obama has handled gay constituents, called Obama's handling of the issue so far "an almost complete disaster."
"In 1999, Bill Clinton became the first president ever to talk about gay rights in a State of the Union address. Eleven years later, not much has changed," Socarides said. Talking again about ending the policy "without a moratorium on the witch hunts and expulsions and without even a plan for future action just won't cut it," he said.
Obama's relationship with the gay community has been rocky since his election. Gays and lesbians objected to the invitation of evangelist Rev. Rick Warren to participate in Obama's inauguration because of Warren's support for repealing gay marriage in California.
At the same time, Obama will have to satisfy the military. Some former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged the policy is flawed, and Mullen signed off on a journal article that called for lifting the ban.
Yet a group that Mullen formed to advise him on the issue has urged a delay that could go into the middle of the next presidential election year.
"Now is not the time," the in-house advisers for Mullen wrote recently in a memorandum. "The importance of winning the wars we are in, along with the stress on the force, our body of knowledge and the number of unknowns, demand that we act with deliberation."
Asked Thursday whether the Army is ready for such a change, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey did not directly answer the question.
"What you heard last night was the beginning of a process," Casey said during an appearance at a Washington think tank.
Further complicating the issue is debate among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, supports a repeal of the law and scheduled Tuesday's hearing on the issue.
But Levin's counterpart in the House, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., has said it is not wise to impose such upheaval while troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And Republicans could score political points against Democrats if it appears as though the party won't listen to the advice of military commanders.
"No action to change the law should be taken by the administration or by this Congress until we have a full and complete understanding of the reasons why the current law threatens or undermines readiness in any significant way," Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., wrote to Mullen and Gates.
Republican Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam and Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential race, said the policy has been successful.
"At a time when our armed forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy," said McCain, R-Ariz.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Kimberly Hefling, Philip Elliott and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.
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