WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday extended limited job benefits to gay partners of U.S. government workers in what he called a first step to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Under pressure from gay rights groups, Obama urged Congress to pass legislation that would extend full healthcare and retirement benefits to gay families in the 1.9 million-strong federal workforce, as many U.S. businesses already do.
“Many of our government’s hardworking and dedicated and patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoyed for one simple reason: the people that they love are of the same sex,” Obama said before signing an order to extend benefits for federal workers’ gay partners.
“It’s a day that marks a historic step toward the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step.”
Obama’s announcement showed that his administration may focus more on incremental, tangible gains for gays and lesbians, rather than wading directly into the divisive gay marriage debate that has played out at the state level.
Gay rights groups called Wednesday’s move a welcome first step and said they understood that the president had been busy trying to shore up the economy and lay the groundwork for landmark healthcare and climate-change legislation.
But they said they would continue to press the administration to outlaw workplace discrimination and extend benefits for same-sex couples.
“Those things should happen today, should have happened yesterday and they haven’t and until they do there’s going to be a frustration,” said Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.
Obama did not back gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, but he did promise to repeal a 1996 law that prevents the government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
The administration will work with Congress to repeal that law, the Defense of Marriage Act, and extend workplace-discrimination laws to cover gays, said John Berry, head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
The administration will also try to overturn the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that allows the U.S. military to expel troops that are openly gay, Berry said.
The outlook in Congress is unclear as a divisive debate over gay rights could interfere with Democrats’ goals to pass landmark legislation covering climate change, healthcare and financial regulation.
Lawmakers are still weighing whether to try to repeal the entire Defense of Marriage Act or simply target sections that prevent the government from offering healthcare and retirement benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.
“Our goal is to come up with a strategy that is more effective to restoring equal rights to gay Americans,” said Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesman for New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
The House of Representatives in April approved an expansion of federal “hate crime” laws to cover gays and lesbians, but the measure has not yet passed the Senate.
At the state level, six states currently recognize gay marriage or plan to by next year, while six others and the District of Columbia provide some level of spousal rights for same-sex couples, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Some 29 states have changed their state constitutions to ban gay marriage.
The memo that Obama signed on Wednesday will:
* Open up the government’s long-term care insurance to gay partners of federal employees;
* Allow federal employees to use their sick leave to care for a gay partner or the partner’s children;
* Allow gay partners of foreign-service employees to use medical facilities at overseas posts and get evacuated if necessary;
* Include same-sex partners and their children when calculating family size for overseas housing allocations;
* Extend current anti-discrimination rules in the federal workforce to cover transgender employees.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Mohammad Zargham