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US Senate Opens Hearings on Defense Secretary Nominee Tuesday

A U.S. Senate panel Tuesday holds a hearing on the nomination of former CIA Director Robert Gates to be defense secretary. The full Senate is expected to confirm Gates by the end of the week, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Senate Republicans and Democrats alike predict Robert Gates will be easily confirmed as defense secretary, succeeding outgoing secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom members of both political parties have criticized for his handling of the Iraq war.

No senator has voiced opposition to Gates' nomination. Many lawmakers have spoken favorably about him.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, met with the nominee on the eve of the hearings:

"He seems very open, eager to consult with Congress, and perhaps what was most encouraging to me was that he spoke the need for a bipartisan approach to national security," said Susan Collins.

Many senators say the challenge for Gates is not his confirmation, but what to do with Iraq once his is confirmed.

Senator John Cornyn is a Texas Republican:

"I think he will say, as he has to this point, that he believes that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would not be in the best interests of the United States or the region," said John Cornyn.

Even though he is all but assured confirmation, Gates is still expected to face tough questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The man who is to become chairman of the panel, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, says he will seek assurances that Gates will be independent minded.

"Is he willing to speak truth to power," asked Carl Levin. "Is he willing to tell the president what the president might not want to hear?"

Levin says he is keeping an open mind going into the hearings. But in 1991, Levin was among a number of Democrats who voted against Gates' nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Gates was confirmed, but after weeks of contentious hearings marked by allegations that he helped shape intelligence to suit President Ronald Reagan in the 1980's.

This time, Gates' confirmation is expected to be swift. The outgoing chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, has scheduled only one day of hearings for Gates, and says Senate confirmation could come as early as Wednesday.

Wednesday is also the day the Iraq Study Group is to make recommendations to President Bush about a future course of action in Iraq. Gates was a member of the group before the President nominated him to succeed Secretary Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld announced his resignation the day after last month's midterm elections, in which Democrats regained control of Congress amid voter dissatisfaction with the Iraq war.