WASHINGTON - As the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers ended, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand vowed Tuesday to take on Defense Department benefits that - for now - do not apply to those members' partners.
Mrs. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she is working on legislation assuring that gays and lesbians can adopt children together. That, she said, could clear the way for the extension of health and other benefits to partners of gays and lesbians in the military.
"I think this issue is very ripe on the federal level," Mrs. Gillibrand said at a Capitol news conference. "The more success you have, you can build on the next success."
Mrs. Gillibrand was among the lawmakers - primarily Democrats - cheering the law's demise, which took effect at midnight. But even as they celebrated that milestone, lawmakers and defense officials acknowledged that the new law's full implementation, and its implications, must play out over many months.
At issue for Mrs. Gillibrand, as well as others, is the reality that the military will not recognize gay marriages as a reason to extend health benefits, for example, to a gay or lesbian member's spouse.
In targeting adoption rights, Mrs. Gillibrand said she is following the lead of New York, which used those as a steppingstone to recognizing gay marriage.
Mrs. Gillibrand is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and cosponsored legislation to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The policy, from the Bill Clinton administration, allowed service members to be discharged for their sexual orientation if it was discovered, although it barred commanders from asking about it.
At the same time Mrs. Gillibrand is pushing in one direction, Republicans opposed to the ban's repeal may look for ways to weaken some of the implications, such as limiting the ability of military chaplains to perform gay marriages.
Some House Republicans have moved in that direction, but Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would fight to make sure such provisions do not appear in the annual bill that outlines defense programs.
Absent a change ordered by Congress, the Defense Department does not appear poised to make any moves toward extension of health or other benefits. The federal Defense of Marriage Act prevents that, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said at a Pentagon news briefing.
"We're going to follow that law as long as it exists," said Adm. Mullen, whose outspoken opposition to the gay ban helped push Congress to repeal it in the final days of Democratic control in 2010.
Mrs. Gillibrand said she recognizes that some aspects of the new law's implementation related to married couples and military housing, for instance, remain to be settled by officials and that senators "stand here ready to support their efforts."
Another lingering question is whether discharged service members will be allowed back into the military. Asked about that, Mr. Levin said lawmakers will discuss with the military how to "undo some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated on people."