WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel might want a chance to catch his breath after limping across the finish line of a brutal confirmation process.
He won't get it.
If all goes as expected, the former GOP senator from Nebraska will be confirmed as the country's next defense secretary before the week is out.
His welcoming present is the probable onset Friday of a series of deep, across-the-board cuts to defense spending known as the sequester.
Hagel will be plunged immediately into negotiations with Congress over defense dollars, said Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former defense budget analyst for former President Bill Clinton.
“The first war that Chuck Hagel is going to fight is the budget war,” Adams said. “That war really matters, and it will set the tone for everything else that he does.”
Because uniformed personnel and war operations in Afghanistan are shielded from direct hits, everything else at the Pentagon must be cut more deeply.
That means nearly 800,000 civilian employees will see a fifth of their workweeks — and a fifth of their paychecks — disappear, including more than 2,800 at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
It means cuts to training. Extended deployments. Grounded planes and docked warships.
The man Hagel is replacing, Leon Panetta, has described the sequester's impact as “devastating.”
Hagel offered his own dark assessment of the situation during his confirmation hearing when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon has been “preparing for the worst” in regards to the sequester.
“This is not an exaggeration,” Hagel said. “And when managers are not given the flexibility and the opportunity and the tools to manage, with complete uncertainty as to what's ahead, that's — that's disaster.”
While the sequester will officially hit as Hagel takes over, Adams said the real drop-dead date for him will be March 27. That's the expiration of the current continuing resolution that is keeping the government funded.
Many expect negotiations over the sequester to be combined with negotiations over whether to simply extend that resolution or adopt new spending measures.
“He's got to get up to speed on that real quick because that negotiation is for real,” Adams said.
The stakes will be high, with multimillion-dollar impacts on major projects such as the new U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt. The repercussions also will be felt by defense contractors.
Bellevue Chamber of Commerce President Jim Ristow said many of the city's 19 defense contractors are seeking nongovernmental work for their 2,500 employees.
“Their antennas are up,” Ristow said.
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said Hagel can take solace in the fact that he won't be blamed for the cuts, at least right away.
“Everybody knows it's not his fault,” O'Hanlon said. “Everybody knows it was going to happen anyway. ... He's being thrown on top of a sinking ship, but it was sinking before he got there.”
O'Hanlon, who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues, also said the ship won't sink. The cuts will be painful, but top Pentagon officials have been planning how to deal with them for months and know what they're doing.
Many observers assume that even if the sequester hits, Congress will move at some point to roll it back.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and a leading defense analyst, said Republicans generally have been committed to not cutting defense spending, and Democrats don't want to see defense jobs go away.
Still, it will be up to Hagel to make the case. The Pentagon's top job isn't really about day-to-day management of the organization. It's selling the public and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
He'll be trying to persuade Congress to give him more flexibility to deal with the sequester's bite.
“He's going to be singing and dancing,” Pike said. “That will be what the heavy breathing will be all about — trying to figure out how to ease the pain.”
That will mean delivering speeches, meeting privately with lawmakers and testifying before the relevant committees.
Pike pointed out what many others have — that Hagel delivered an unimpressive performance during his confirmation hearing. While Republicans on the committee ripped into him over past statements about Iran, Israel and nuclear arms reductions, Hagel grasped for answers and misspoke at times.
That might have been part of a concerted strategy on his part, simply an acceptance that he needed to withstand an almost ritualistic hazing. But he'll need to step up his game, Pike said.
He will be watched closely, Pike said. While Hagel is expected to be confirmed, he also could have the most votes cast against him of any defense secretary in decades.
“Hopefully for him, he will give a better performance,” Pike said. “If he does not, he's not going to last very long.”
The sequester will certainly present challenges, but Pike also questioned the doomsday talk out of the Pentagon. He noted that the defense budget has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, that the U.S. military is now out of Iraq and on its way out of Afghanistan. Smart bombs have made the country's air power twice as lethal as it was 20 years ago, and the Navy is as big as every other navy combined.
“You're telling me that we can't cut a penny without bin Laden rising from the briny deep to strike again? I just don't get it,” Pike said.
Adams suggested that Hagel could find opportunity in crisis by making clear that the Pentagon's next every-four-years review now being assembled will take into account reduced resources. Hagel could use that review as the vehicle for putting his stamp on the future shape and scope of the military.
“Declining budgets are a great opportunity for the secretary to re-orient the services, if he chooses to do so,” Adams said. “I think the jury's out as to whether Hagel will choose to do so. ... Frankly, from his hearing you get nothing that would tell you either that he's aware of the opportunity or where he would take it.”
World-Herald staff writer Roseann Moring contributed to this report.
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