Hagel faces tough budget questions

While his controversial statements on homosexuals and Israel are more widely known, the Defense secretary nominee may also have to answer for what he has said about the DOD budget.

Chuck Hagel

Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, shown here in 2009, may face questions over his recent statement that 'the Pentagon needs to be pared down.'

As former Sen. Chuck Hagel prepares for a Jan. 31 confirmation hearing on his nomination as defense secretary, he faces serious scrutiny over past comments and stands on key issues.

Hagel’s stances on Iran, Israel and gays in the military have drawn the most attention, but the Nebraska Republican also is facing serious heat over comments he has made about the Pentagon’s "over-funded" budget. In reported conversations and in prepared answers to policy questions from the Senate, Hagel has backpedaled on that position, but questions remain as to what he would do about the Defense Department’s $487 billion in projected cuts over the next decade.

"As Secretary [Leon] Panetta has stated, sequestration – both the size and the arbitrary manner of these cuts – would be devastating to the department," Hagel said in the 112-page response to the Senate’s policy questions, posted Jan. 30 by the Atlantic. "Based on my assessment to date, I share his concerns. I urge the Congress to eliminate the sequester threat permanently and pass a balanced deficit-reduction plan."

That response, however, is an apparent contradiction to comments Hagel previously made that have riled opponents to his nomination.

"The Defense Department, I think, in many ways, has become bloated," Hagel said in a 2011 Financial Times interview. "In many ways I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down."

Among the critics troubled by those 2011 comments is a group of 14 retired military leaders who wrote a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee leaders Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), calling on them to oppose Hagel’s nomination.

"This group knows firsthand that the United States military requires leadership that recognizes the need for a defense budget commensurate with the threats we face; the need for a credible, reliable and effective nuclear deterrent; and the need to support our allies and not accommodate our adversaries," Frank Gaffney, president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy, which facilitated the letter, said in a released statement. "Sen. Hagel lacks these qualities, and hopefully the United States Senate will heed the concerns of these flag and general officers during the course of his confirmation process."

At least one senator, however, believes Hagel’s views may have changed since then. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Roll Call that a recent conversation she had with the prospective defense secretary "seems to represent an evolution in his comments where he said the Pentagon was bloated."

Others point to Hagel’s own military experience – he is a decorated Vietnam War veteran – as a foundation that would help him in the inevitably tough choices to come for the military, including controversial, potential cuts to pay and benefits.

"I think he’ll be particularly effective there because whenever you deal with these issues, people say you don’t understand…well, he has more Purple Hearts than his 23 predecessors combined," Larry Korb, fellow at the Center for American Progress, said in a Jan. 30 call with reporters. "Plus, he understands the legislative branch. I think he’ll be effective in that area, which has to be tackled."

While some senators already have decided how they will vote on Hagel, most are waiting to see what comes from the confirmation, scheduled for Jan. 31 at 9:30 a.m. And while most are not saying explicitly what they want to hear, some on the other side of the Hill are laying out their expectations – and the budget is firmly in the crosshairs.

"I hope to hear from a nominee who discusses in real terms the resources and support our men and women in uniform need to meet the inadequate defense strategy that President Obama has mandated," House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said in a released statement. "We live in a hostile world going through difficult times. In this world, perhaps no force is as hostile to our warfighter as the book keepers at the Office of Management and Budget. Any secretary of defense, Democrat or Republican, hawk or dove, must understand that their first obligation is to win the budget battle at the White House."

NEXT STORY: The envelope please ....

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