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As midterms near, Democrats weigh two hot-button issues

As the campaigns for the midterm elections begin in earnest, President Obama is contending with two hot-button issues that may well come to define his first years in office: gays in the military and government spending.

Administration officials and congressional leaders met with representatives of gay rights groups on Monday to discuss the possible repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The measure currently under consideration would offer a compromise that technically repeals the statute but leaves the White House and Pentagon to formally approve the change, The Advocate reported on Monday.

Pentagon staffers met separately on Monday with gay rights activists to discuss the proposal, according to The Washington Post. Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement: “Given that Congress insists on addressing this issue this week, we are trying to gain a better understanding of the legislative proposals they will be considering.”

Democratic leaders have been under considerable pressure to move more quickly on gay rights legislation, including the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Major Democratic donors from the gay rights movement have threatened to pull their support from the party, and more locally, gay rights activists have promised to challenge lawmakers who do not support gay marriage legislation or the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Many had hoped that a bill repealing the policy would be attached to this year’s defense department spending authorization, which is currently wending its way through Congress. But the Pentagon said it would prefer to study the possible impact of repeal and issue a report in December, which seemed to cast doubt on the prospect of passage in 2010. The compromise proposed on Monday would allow that study to move forward.

The gay rights movement has been hobbled by successive defeats in recent months, as one state after another — including several of the most reliably liberal states in the country — has rejected efforts to legalize gay marriage. Marginal Democrats in swing districts have distanced themselves from those proposals, out of fear that suburban, middle-class voters will punish them for focusing on social issues rather than the economy.

Meanwhile, as White House officials mulled the possibility of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” President Obama on Monday unveiled a proposal that would dramatically reshape the balance of power between Congress and the executive. The bill would allow the president to strike individual spending projects from bills and send those revisions back to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

The proposal comes as the federal deficit nears one trillion dollars and anger over the size of government continues to define the national political landscape. But the measure is unlikely to succeed, not only because it asks Congress to strip itself of one of its most prominent powers — control of the nation’s purse strings — but because the president’s own party has balked at similar proposals in the past.

Peter Orszag, the White House budget director, defended the measure from charges that it was no more than a political “gimmick,” according to USA Today:

“It’s just another tool … it adds to the arsenal,” Orszag said, while admitting that “there’s no point in sending things up if you’ve got little chance of winning.”

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