US president Barack Obama is to decide whether the government must provide health insurance benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

The New York Times reports that he is faced with a choice between disappointing the liberal base which elected him or angering the conservatives at a time he needs their help on his domestic agenda.

The decision hinges on two strongly-worded court orders, which detail separate grievances, from two judges of the federal appeals court in California who have said that employees of their court are entitled to health benefits for their same-sex partners under the programme that insures millions of federal workers.

However, the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has instructed insurers not to provide the benefits ordered by the court, citing the Defence of Marriage Act 1996.

Lorraine E Dettman, assistant director of the personnel office, has said that benefits are available to the spouse of a federal employee, but the 1996 law stipulates that “the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said: “While the president opposes gay marriage, he supports legislative repeal of the Defence of Marriage Act. He believes this country must realize its founding promise of equality by treating all its citizens with dignity and respect.”

Eight gay married couples and three widowers in Massachusetts are currently suing the federal government for benefits received by straight married couples.

The suit is being filed by the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders group on behalf of the plaintiffs, some of whom are federal employees.