Congress volleyed back today on the contentious issue of repealing the military's ban on open service for gay men and lesbians. Seventy-seven Democratic House members are urging President Obama to take the lead on the issue by suspending discharges.

“We urge you to exercise the maximum discretion legally possible in administering 'don't ask, don't tell' until Congress repeals the law,” the House members wrote in a letter to the president. “To this end, we ask that you direct the Armed Services not to initiate any investigation of service personnel to determine their sexual orientation, and that you instruct them to disregard third party accusations that do not allege violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That is, we request that you impose that no one is asked and that you ignore, as the law requires, third parties who tell.”

The lawmakers agree that the policy can only be overturned by Congress – asking the president to lead in the effort – but are essentially backing the Palm Center's plan to end discharges immediately while repeal legislation is debated.

The law known as “don't ask, don't tell” was a compromise of sorts by President Clinton, who had campaigned on the promise to allow gays to serve in the military. But Clinton backed off when his plan met with stiff resistance from Pentagon brass and social conservatives. Clinton called the law that allows gay men and lesbians to serve so long as they remain closeted or celibate the best compromise he could broker, while gay activists said he “threw them under the bus.”

Since the law took effect in 1993 more than 12,500 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged.

And while Obama has called for repeal of the law, discharges have continued on his watch, more than 250 since he took office, including the high-profile cases of New York National Guard First Lieutenant Dan Choi and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach.

The lawmakers used the two cases in their letter, calling them “two exceptional sevicemen who have dedicated their lives to defending our country and protecting the American people.”

Signing on to Florida Congressman Alcee L. Hastings' letter are openly gay representatives Jared Polis of Colorado, Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. One Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and an Independent, Gregorio Sablan, a non-voting representative from the Northern Mariana Islands, have also signed on.

“Don't ask, don't tell” has become an increasingly contentious issue for the president as gay activists continue to call out the president for going back on his campaign pledge to end the ban.

The Pentagon and the White House have offered conflicting statements on the current state of discussions on the issue of repeal. The White House says there are vigorous ongoing discussions on how best to repeal – and increasingly the administration is using the word “change” – the law. But the Pentagon has said they are not preparing for any anticipated alterations in the law.