WASHINGTON — Don’t ask, don’t tell, and now, apparently, don’t move.

One of the most culturally contentious issues in the U.S. military — the 16-year-old law requiring gay and lesbian members of the armed services to keep their sexual preferences hidden — briefly seemed like it was back on the table last week.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama extended new benefits to same-sex civilian partners of federal employees, and lawmakers followed that announcement by reiterating their desire to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law as soon as possible.

But while speculation  flared that the new civilian rules might be a prelude to an imminent change, White House and congressional leaders quickly began backing away, each saying they’re waiting for the other to take the first step.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs repeated last week that the administration is working with members of Congress on finding a way to pass legislation to overturn the law, set in place by lawmakers in 1993 during the Clinton administration.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that lawmakers are waiting on a legislative proposal from the White House before moving on the issue, saying they need “presidential leadership and direction” on how to approach a repeal.

The House of Representatives has had a bill to overturn the law pending since March, but no hearings have been scheduled on the measure. Bill sponsor Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., collected 147 co-sponsors for the legislation but publicly said she wouldn’t push for passage without support from the president.

An official with the House Democratic leadership said the House is committed to repealing “don’t ask” but has agreed with civil rights groups to put new hate crime legislation and a workplace nondiscrimination bill on the legislative calendar before taking up the military issue.

White House officials declined comment on their plans, and on whether the president will send his own “don’t ask” legislation to Capitol Hill.

Gibbs this week said simply that “we’re pleased that this is a priority not just of the president’s but of those in Congress, and we’re hopeful that something can get done.” But he also noted that the repeal is just one of numerous goals for the White House this year.

The hot-potato game between the White House and Capitol Hill is fueling frustration among gay-rights advocates, who strongly supported both Obama and the Democratic slate of congressional candidates during last year’s election. Both the president and lawmakers promised during the campaign to overturn the “don’t ask” law.

“I don’t begrudge people for seeking political cover,” said Nathaniel Frank, a researcher at the liberal Palm Center and author of a book about the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers. “But Congress is looking to Obama as the head of the Democratic Party. Obama is saying that Congress needs to act and the military needs to get ready. This is a passing of the buck.”

White House spokesmen have declined to name any of the lawmakers or military officials with whom Obama has discussed the issue, other than Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

On Thursday, Gates said the Defense Department position is clear: Congress must act first on “don’t ask” before service leaders will make any changes.

“Until the law is changed, our ability to change the policy is extremely limited, if not nonexistent,” he said.

But those military rules won’t affect the Pentagon’s instructions to implement Obama’s new same-sex benefits changes for civilian defense employees. Within 90 days, defense officials will submit a report detailing how all their current benefits for married couples might be updated to domestic partnership benefits.

The new rules will not cover health insurance, but all federal employees will henceforth be guaranteed sick leave for care of a same-sex partner.

State Department officials already have outlined other benefit extensions for partners of department employees, such as the use of overseas medical facilities, inclusion in cost of living and housing stipends, and family member employment preference rules at overseas offices.

But planned changes don’t contain any privacy or anonymity guarantees. Edmund Burns, spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, said everyone applying for benefits is essentially “outing” themselves and their partners.

That means a Defense Department employee with a same-sex partner in the military could run afoul of the “don’t ask” rules.

Pentagon officials said they are not aware of any plans to adopt special guidelines shielding benefits information from “don’t ask” investigations.

White House officials said the same-sex benefits changes are not designed to be a gradual step toward military acceptance of overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell” but are instead a move to recruit and retain top talent into government jobs.

Yet Gates appears ready to send a signal on another front. He reportedly favors the nomination of an openly-gay man — William White — to the department’s new deputy chief management post. White has worked with the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.

Frank said the benefits changes — while a positive step — “look like an attempt at appeasement” for groups like his pushing for greater change.

The Palm Center and other gay rights groups have been pushing Obama to sign an executive order repealing “don’t ask,” arguing that Congressional action is not necessary to dispense with the law.

But White House officials maintain Congress must pass new legislation to drop the ban on homosexuals, and have said they won’t use an executive decree in this case.

Until the White House addresses “don’t ask” head on, Frank said, he expects gay and lesbian rights groups to continue their public criticism of the administration’s failure to keep its campaign promise of repealing the law.

Reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this report.

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