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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is preparing to expand benefits to same-sex partners of military personnel, but it remained doubtful that the Pentagon could offer the medical, dental and housing allowances desired by gay and lesbian couples, officials said Tuesday.

Officials at the Pentagon would not say publicly which new benefits the department has determined it can extend to same-sex couples without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that bars the federal government from legally recognizing same-sex unions.

But some officials said the Pentagon is likely to allow same-sex partners to have access to the on-base commissary and other military subsidized stores, as well as some health and welfare programs.

The new guidelines will be Panetta’s final imprint on the armed forces and come on the heels of two landmark changes undertaken during his relatively short tenure: the rescinding of the ban on openly gay service members and the decision to allow women to serve in combat units.

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Officials said the military will likely require that a document be signed to designate the military member’s partner as a legitimate recipient of the benefits.

The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Despite lifting the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops serving in the armed forces, the Pentagon cannot recognize their marriages, even if they are legal in some states, because military personnel are federal employees covered by DOMA.

The Supreme Court next month will hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of DOMA, which lower courts have struck down. The court will rule before the end of June.

Officials said Panetta, who is due to step down soon, would order benefits that included the issuance of military-identification cards to same-sex partners of military personnel, akin to those offered any dependent.

That would bring privileges to shop at military commissaries, as well as access to gymnasiums, movie theaters and various family-support programs on bases and posts. The military also could offer same-sex couples transportation privileges when stationed abroad, according to those pressing for expanded benefits.

The focus is on those benefits that fall under Pentagon policy and can be changed by the defense secretary, rather than on benefits covered by DOMA.

While not insignificant, an expansion of benefits limited to those privileges would fall far short of the financial benefits given married military couples — including medical and dental benefits and housing allowances. Officials said the final package had not been decided.

Military officials have struggled with a flurry of equality dilemmas emerging since the ban on openly gay service troops was lifted in September 2011, after congressional repeal of the law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The military “has established a two-tiered system regarding how they treat the haves and have-not families,” said Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an organization that has been pressing the Pentagon to expand benefits to same-sex couples. “It’s an untenable leadership situation.”

Last year, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation that would extend same-sex benefits to spouses of veterans and service members. He argued that with gays serving openly in the military, their spouses should receive the same benefits.

Under his measure, the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department would have to recognize any marriage that has been recognized by a state, the District of Columbia, commonwealths or territories. Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow gay and lesbian couples to marry.

Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the department has been conducting a “deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners.” She noted that the Defense Department already grants some benefits to same-sex spouses, mainly relating to troop deaths and other emergencies.

In October, the Joint Chiefs of Staff received a final version of a plan to extend benefits to same-sex couples, according to Robinson, who has informally advised the Pentagon on the issue. The chiefs did not take action on the recommendations at the time, she said, but the issue appears to have gained momentum in recent months.

Among the driving forces was an increased emphasis at the White House after President Obama’s second inauguration, when he said: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”

The issue also surfaced during the confirmation hearing of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who has disavowed disparaging remarks he made in 1998 about an openly gay ambassador. Hagel sought to reassure senators during his opening remarks last week, saying he was “fully committed” to implementing the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops and vowing to do “everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

The Army has wrestled in recent weeks with a controversy at Fort Bragg, N.C., that has given the issue greater urgency. After a lieutenant colonel’s wife was denied membership at the officers’ spouses organization in December, ostensibly for not having a military ID, her case made national news. It prompted the Marine Corps to issue a memo saying groups at its bases around the country could not reject prospective members on the basis of sexual orientation.

The spouses group backed down last month, offering the officer’s wife, Ashley Broadway, full membership. The announcement came the same day Broadway learned she had been named Fort Bragg spouse of the year by Military Spouse magazine.

Compiled from The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Associated Press

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