No Confirmation Battle Seen for Gates

A Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled Tuesday for Robert Gates, the nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary. Democrats plan to ask Gates about his role in Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal, but in general they're vowing a "fair and fresh" look at a man who has served under six presidents.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

When Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee next Tuesday, it won't be his first Senate confirmation hearing. He was twice nominated to be director of Central Intelligence.

The first time was in the Reagan administration and he was not confirmed. Later he was nominated by the first President Bush and was. Both confirmation hearings were contentious. By all accounts, Mr. Gates will get a much friendlier reception this time.

We're joined now by NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna on Capitol Hill. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA: Sure. Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us, please, what kind of problems did Mr. Gates have during the last time he went before a Senate panel?

WELNA: Two words Scott: Iran-contra. When Gates was first nominated to be CIA director in 1987, that scandal, which involved illegal arms sales to Iran to illegally finance contra guerillas in Central American, has just broken wide open. And even though Gates wasn't directly involved, he appeared to have been a lot more aware of what was going on then he led on to. In fact, that led him to withdraw his nomination at that time.

And when he came back four years later as the nominee for the same post, he admitted that he could have handled his role in Iran-Contra better. But at that second hearing there were also colleagues of his at the CIA who came forward and accused him of trying to shape intelligence findings to suit his superiors.

And now that's the same kind of charges we've heard more recently of intelligence being politicized by the current Bush administration.

SIMON: Are there any other, I guess we inevitably have to refer to them as red flags, that you think people might actually seize on during these confirmation hearings?

WELNA: Well, there might be some questions about a 22-year-old memo that Gates wrote that surfaced just last week in which he advocated carrying out air strikes against Nicaragua, and this even after Congress had banned spending money for such activities.

SIMON: Now what year was this?

WELNA: This was in 1984. But you know, I think we'll hear a lot more questions at the hearing about Gates's stance on Iraq, especially his contention that the U.S. should be negotiating with both Iran and Syria. And that's a view that would seem to put him at odds with the Bush administration.

SIMON: The Democrats, for reasons that I hope you can explain, have not seemed to want to make this nomination the first test of their new power.

WELNA: Well, you know, I think the Democrats have decided it's more important to get Rumsfeld out as defense secretary than it is to hold up Gates's confirmation with a lot of questions about his past. Now, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who'll be the Armed Services Committee's next chairman, says he does intend to ask Gates whether he has any further thoughts on his lack of memory regarding Iran-contra.

But Levin says he's mainly interested in giving Gates what he calls a fair and fresh look. And Rhode Island's Jack Reed, who's another leading Democrat on the armed services panel, praised Gates this week for what he said was a different attitude from Rumsfeld's.

He says that Gates isn't so wedded to a series of bad decisions that have been made and that he has a temperament that's likely to foster mutual respect with the uniformed folks over at the Pentagon. But I think the most important thing is that Democrats see Gates as somebody who's not tied to Vice President Cheney as Rumsfeld seemed to be.

SIMON: Are there political hazards, potentially, for the Democrats in these hearings too?

WELNA: Well, I think certainly if Gates does not turn out to be the kind of defense secretary that they wanted - you know, when Rumsfeld went before the Senate panel five years ago now, he had what everyone called was a love-fest for his confirmation hearing. And it's something that Democrats really regret now.

SIMON: The outgoing majority leader, Senator Frist, says he wants the Senate to confirm Mr. Gates by the end of next week. Is that likely?

WELNA: I think it's very likely, and if it doesn't happen for any reason, the next Senate that's sworn in would be able to consider his nomination with the hearing that's being held next week.

SIMON: NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Thanks very much.

WELNA: You're quite welcome Scott.

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