In its clearest signals yet, the Obama administration appears prepared to punt repeal of “don't ask, don't tell,” the policy that bans gay troops from serving openly, until next year.

While President Obama renewed his commitment Monday to ending the law that prescribes discharge for gay and lesbian service members who do not remain celibate or closeted, he made certain to choose his words carefully.

“We are going to do that,” Obama answered a protester who asked: “What about 'don't ask, don't tell'?”

“I agree,” he said after members of GetEQUAL continued to disrupt his speech at a California fundraiser for fellow Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer. The president also chided the protesters, saying they should be yelling at someone who does not agree with repeal of the law.

However, unlike in his first State of the Union Address, Obama failed to add that he was committed to repealing the law this year.

“This year,” he said in January, “I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law.”

The White House has since implied that it is no longer committed to reversing the policy this year.

Last week, Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group that lobbies for repeal of the law, alleged that the Obama administration is quietly campaigning against repeal this year.

“I am very disturbed by multiple reports from Capitol Hill that your Congressional liaison team is urging some Members of Congress to avoid a vote on repeal this year,” Sarvis wrote in a letter addressed to the president.

“The upcoming House and Senate votes will be close, and very frankly, Mr. President, we need your help now.”

On Wednesday, however, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs poured cold water on Sarvis' plea, saying that the president is committed to “a process and a proposal” that includes seeing through a military review of how best to implement changes should Congress repeal the law. The study – ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates – is due in December.

Commitment to the study runs counter to repeal this year. Most supporters concede passage in the Senate will be difficult and had hoped to avoid a direct confrontation by tucking repeal language into next year's defense budget.

Sarvis warned that the window for such action is closing quickly.

“The train is leaving,” he told The Advocate. “We could have key votes before the Memorial Day recess.”

Last month, openly gay Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank sounded a similar alarm when he called on the president to make it clear that he supports repeal of the law this year.

“The administration has been ambiguous about it, and that ambiguity has allowed some to interpret Secretary Gates' argument for a delay in implementation as a delay in adopting the legislation,” Frank said.

In leading a protest outside the White House gates on Tuesday, Lt. Dan Choi, one of the most visible opponents of the policy, called on the president to add repeal language into the defense budget.

“If the president were serious about keeping his promise to repeal this year, he would put the repeal language in his Defense Authorization budget,” he said.