Pentagon & Congress

Few surprises, concerns at Carter confirmation hearing

And that despite lawmakers' contention that the country has never faced a broader range of unpredictable threats and national security challenges, issues that the new secretary will have to immediately adapt to from his first day in office.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the nominee to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, was welcomed warmly by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, who for weeks have lauded him as a commendable choice for the role.

He promised "candid advice" for President Obama and a working relationship with members of Congress at the hearing, both clichéd prerequisites for the nomination process.

He offered support for arming Ukrainian forces in their fight against Russia, a brief defense of Obama's strategy to train moderate rebels in the fight against the Islamic State group, and strong opposition to both sequestration and sexual assault in the ranks.

And he drew little resistance from any of the lawmakers who he will spar with repeatedly in coming months, as senators dig into long-term defense spending and security issues.

It was a marked change from two years ago, when then-nominee Chuck Hagel faced a testy grilling from Republicans and Democrats underwhelmed that he had been selected.

Carter, a Rhodes scholar with degrees in theoretical physics and medieval history, built bipartisan support as the Pentagon's top weapons buyer and a key defense thinker under former defense secretaries Bob Gates and Leon Panetta.

Committee members for weeks had billed the hearing as a chance to roast Obama's national security decisions and not his latest proxy, but that mostly manifested as calls for Carter to re-examine current plans in Afghanistan, Iraq, Eastern Europe and the Pacific.

McCain called the White House's Islamic State strategy nonexistent and the current Ukraine strategy cowardly. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioned Obama's negotiations with Iran and response to Islamic radicalism.

For his part, Carter identified the biggest threat facing the military as sequestration, mandatory spending caps set to take full effect once again in fiscal 2016.

"Sequester is risky to our defense, it introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleading, diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike," he said.

That statement echoed each of his predecessors' complaints about the looming funding cuts, and defense lawmakers' distaste for the policy. Still, congressional leaders have not seriously discussed any alternatives, leaving Carter with difficult budget questions even before he has reviewed the administration's just-released fiscal 2016 plan.

Carter will be back on Capitol Hill to discuss those budget issues in a few weeks, assuming he is confirmed. McCain said he thinks that vote could take place before the end of next week.

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