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Senators Vote 92-0 for Cheney Confirmation : New Defense Secretary Completes Cabinet; Seat Unfilled for 2 Months

March 18, 1989|MELISSA HEALY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday unanimously confirmed six-term Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the nation's 17th defense secretary, filling a Cabinet seat that has remained empty for the first two months of the Bush Administration.

Cheney, who leaves a Republican leadership position in the House to lead a Defense Department work force of 3.2 million, will be "an excellent leadership example for the men and women in the U.S. military establishment," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Nunn led the Senate fight against President Bush's first choice for the top defense post, former Texas Sen. John Tower.

Friday's 92-0 confirmation vote had none of the bitterness or partisanship that marked the two-week Senate debate over Tower's nomination, which was rejected on March 9 by a 53-47 margin. In fact, the Senate's quick consideration of Cheney's nomination led one lawmaker to charge that the chamber had acted with undue haste.

"When you have a nomination cleared in less than a week, it simply isn't right," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "You haven't had time to hear from the American people. Let there be no mistake, this is a rush to judgment."

President Bush, speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington from Colorado Springs, Colo., said that he was "very pleased" about the Senate vote.

"I'm convinced he'll be a wonderful secretary of defense. I'm very happy with the public reaction, (from) people that are in the decision-making process on the Hill and people he'll be working with at the Pentagon. He's been very well received."

Cheney was sworn in shortly after the vote in an informal ceremony at his congressional office and went immediately to the Pentagon to begin work. He is to take the oath of office in a public ceremony Tuesday at the Pentagon and is the 14th and last member of the Bush Cabinet to be confirmed.

In four hours of confirmation hearings last Tuesday, the 48-year-old Cheney told the Senate defense panel that filling the 45 top jobs at the Pentagon with "first class people who will be able to carry out the policies of the President and the policies of Congress" is his first priority.

While he has been a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence for five years, Cheney has scant experience in the nuts and bolts of military programs and policies.

Cheney said he has asked former General Motors executive Donald J. Atwood to serve as his deputy defense secretary, the Pentagon's second-in-command. Atwood was chosen for the spot by Tower, who chose him in close consultation with the White House. Pentagon sources said that Cheney also is expected to retain Paul D. Wolfowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, as undersecretary for policy.

Beyond that, Cheney will lead or take part in several sweeping reviews that already are under way but that must produce decisions on Pentagon policy and hardware within the next two months.

In his Feb. 9 speech to Congress, Bush said that his defense secretary would provide details by mid-April of how the Pentagon could trim $6 billion from the Ronald Reagan Administration's 1990 budget plan. Bush also said the secretary would have 90 days to recommend management improvements for the Pentagon's acquisition process.

Tower had drawn up a broad outline for the Pentagon management reform and won Bush's approval for the plan, which Cheney is expected to adopt. In addition, the military services, at the direction of Acting Defense Secretary William H. Taft IV, have proposed $6 billion of reductions to the 1990 budget plan.

It will fall to Cheney to consider those proposals, which have avoided reductions in troop numbers and cut primarily into equipment purchases and weapons research, according to a senior Defense Department official. Cheney said during his confirmation hearings that the armed services "may well face" troop reductions as early as next year.

Cheney also will have to decide how to proceed with the modernization of the land-based nuclear missile force. The Air Force continues to favor a railway basing scheme for its 50 MX missiles but many in Congress favor development of a smaller, single-warhead mobile missile commonly called Midgetman.

Finally, Cheney, whose background in national security is strongest on intelligence issues, also becomes a key player in the Bush Administration's most sweeping review of American strategy. Decisions about the land-based missile force, as well as the design of and funding for research on missile defenses, are expected to emerge from that government-wide review.

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