President Barack Obama has extended partial federal benefits to same-sex partners of US government workers, in what he said was a historic step towards equality for gays and lesbians.
"Many of our government's hardworking and dedicated patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy -- for one simple reason, the people that they love are of the same sex," Obama said upon signing a presidential memorandum ushering in the changes on Wednesday.
The move came in the wake of rising criticism from some lesbian and gay rights groups about what they see as sluggish progress towards implementing campaign promises.
The president signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by rights activists, lawmakers and Vice President Joseph Biden.
Under the new measures, domestic partners of federal workers will get benefits including long-term care insurance used by elderly people, and workers will be able to use sick days to care for their partners if they become ill.
The move will also cover members of the foreign service, allowing partners of diplomats to use medical facilities at US posts abroad, to benefit from medical evacuations and to be included in housing allocations.
Obama's memorandum does not include comprehensive health and life insurance, however, although he pledged to back legislation in Congress allowing full benefits to be provided.
Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman signaled a new effort to get the bill through the House of Representatives and the Senate.
"This is not only a matter of fairness, but would also help the federal government attract, recruit and retain the most qualified workers at a time when the number of federal employees eligible to retire is steadily increasing," he said.
Despite Obama's action on Wednesday, the president has yet to follow through on a White House promise to end the ban on gays serving openly in the US military -- a hugely controversial issue.
Gay groups also recently slammed the Obama Justice Department for backing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples.
"The president has just as strong a duty to put his principles into action, and end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people and our families," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a statement last week.
But Obama said as he signed the memorandum that he was committing to overturning the act.
"Today marks a historic step towards the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge it is only one step.
"Among the steps we have not yet taken is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I believe it is discriminatory, it interferes with states' rights and we will work with Congress to overturn it."
Obama has said he believes marriage is a sacred union between a man and woman, though supports same-sex civil unions, and describes himself as a "fierce advocate" of gay and lesbian rights.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, said Obama's memorandum was a "building block toward full equality."
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights advocacy group, slammed the president for not speaking out publicly against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The group said they "urge (Obama) to break his continued silence on DADT and endorse repeal legislation in the House, or send up his own language to Capitol Hill."
In a statement in June marking national lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender month, Obama said he would support the "full spectrum" of equal rights for the community.
This included workplace and adoption rights, and committing to fight HIV/AIDS.
Wednesday's memorandum "is the first brick in paving what is a long path toward equality" for the gay community, Solmonese said after the signing.
"We look forward to working with (Obama) to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, overturn 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and guarantee the entire American workforce is free from discrimination," he said.