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Barack Obama is likely to offend one of his most devout constituencies so as not to alienate Republicans.

He will decide it's better to brave the anger of the gay and lesbian community than to reignite the culture wars on Capitol Hill.

Two U.S. Court of Appeals judges in California think it's an outrage that the same-sex spouses of their employees are not entitled to the benefits that opposite-sex spouses enjoy. Acting in their capacity as employers, they have ordered health insurance companies to provide those benefits.

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But workers in appeals courts are federal workers, and the federal Office of Personnel Management has ordered the health insurance companies not to comply. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act defines a spouse as only "a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." Under that act, the OPM says, same-sex partners are ineligible for benefits.

Gay-rights advocates have high hopes that Mr. Obama's administration will act to extend federal benefits to same-sex couples. After all, if you go to www.whitehouse.gov, you'll find this commitment under the Agenda tab: "Our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity." The administration's nominee to head OPM, John Berry, will be the highest-ranking openly gay presidential appointment yet - and he supports an end to workplace discrimination against gays.

Senator Joseph Lieberman and Representative Tammy Baldwin will be introducing legislation this year extending full benefits to same-sex couples who are federal employees. So all the administration needs to do is throw its weight behind the struggle by convincing a few moderate Republican senators to back the bill, and Bob's your uncle.

If only it were that simple. Similar legislation has been attempted repeatedly without success. Preserving the traditional definition of marriage is a to-the-ramparts issue for many Republicans. The GOP's congressional wing will fight the bill with everything it has, holding other legislation hostage and generally making the atmosphere on Capitol Hill, which this administration is working hard to improve, utterly toxic.

Mr. Obama is anxious to secure at least a few Republican votes for his landmark reforms to health care, education and environmental legislation. Expending political capital in defence of same-sex benefit rights is poor strategy. This is not a hill the administration is likely to consider worth storming.

So Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Baldwin will be on their own. No doubt, the President will support their legislation publicly. But gay-rights groups such as Human Rights Campaign will discover that the White House isn't really in the fight, and they'll be furious.

Mr. Obama has already offended the gay community by asking evangelist Rick Warren, who opposes recognizing same-sex couples, to give the invocation at his inauguration. It's all part of the Democrats' effort to reach out to evangelicals who are uncomfortable with elements in the Christian conservative movement who obsess over abortion and gay-rights issues.

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It's not that Mr. Obama is anti-gay. It's just that he doesn't want to make gay rights a linchpin of his administration. At least not in the first term.

Still, the Democrats don't want to alienate the gay community entirely. And there is one area where the President can act without consulting Congress: the military.

Bill Clinton came up with the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays serving in the military. This policy has arguably worked well, placating the old guard while allowing gay men and women to serve their country. But as columnist George Will put it last week: "For the rising generation of Americans, being gay is like being left-handed; it's boring."

Mr. Obama wouldn't need to go to Congress to end Mr. Clinton's policy. Just as Harry Truman ordered the military to integrate racially, Mr. Obama could simply order commanders to ignore the sexual identity of anyone in uniform.

Doing so would go far toward placating gays and the young, generally. People under 30 are perhaps the most important constituency in Mr. Obama's coalition. They'll be voting for decades and Mr. Obama wants them to get into the habit of voting Democrat.

So here are a couple of predictions: Mr. Obama will end "Don't ask, don't tell." And if he serves two terms, gay couples will enjoy federal benefits by the end of the second term. Just expect it to happen later rather than sooner.

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