February 10, 1996 in Nation/World

Clinton Tries To Head Off Hiv Order

Michael E. Ruane Knight-Ridder

President Clinton has ordered Attorney General Janet Reno not to defend in court a provision that would fire armed-service members with the AIDS virus, even though he is expected to sign the provision into law this morning, the White House said Friday.

The president, in a memo, called the provision “discriminatory … wholly unwarranted … (and) highly punitive,” and administration lawyers said he believes the measure is unconstitutional.

Furthermore, Clinton threw the administration’s full weight behind measures to repeal the provision and mitigate its effects.

His actions set up a battle either in Congress or the court system over the controversial provision, which is part of the annual Defense Authorization Bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

The president had vetoed the $265 billion bill on Dec. 28 because of the AIDS provision and several others he found objectionable.

All of the contentious sections have now been removed except for the one concerning AIDS. White House spokesman Michael McCurry said “the president is favorably inclined towards the bill itself” because it is “critical to the national security of the United States; very important to people in the military around the world.”

The provision in question, which was sponsored by Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., calls for the termination of all of the 1,049 service members with the AIDS virus, which is called HIV, within six months of the law’s enactment.

Those affected would retain medical benefits, though their families would not, but they would lose potential retirement and disability pay. Dornan believes that HIV-infected service members, whom the Pentagon will not send on deployments, should be removed to make way for people who can be deployed.

Secretary of Defense William Perry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili, and HIV-infected basketball star Magic Johnson denounced the measure Friday.

Perry and Shalikashvili, in a joint statement, called the provision unnecessary and unwise. Johnson, who last week resumed playing professional basketball after retiring four years ago, said in a letter to Congress that the provision was a “terrible injustice.”

Still, with the president’s expected signature Saturday, the provision will take effect with the rest of the bill.

Meanwhile, a bill to repeal the provision in Congress was introduced into the House Feb. 1, and legal challenges could begin as soon as the bill is signed.

Paul Mero, Dornan’s chief of staff, said of the repeal legislation: “We run this place. Any effort to repeal this legislation has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing.”

Joe Zuniga, a spokesman for the AIDS Action Council, said of the White House announcements: “It’s a sad day in the history of the epidemic. We believe that this is the worst piece of AIDS-specific legislation signed into law.”

“You do not sign a bill that codifies discrimination against a select group of Americans,” he said.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email