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Relief, Concern for New Delays Expressed at Pentagon

Times Staff Writer

With the defeat of John Tower, somber Pentagon officials face the prospect of substantial new delays in resolving weighty budget and strategic arms questions--including the future of “Star Wars” missile defense research and of the land-based missile force.

Leaving the Pentagon leaderless for at least several more weeks also extends the uncertainty on the Pentagon’s main bread-and-butter issue: how to cut $6 billion from the 1990 defense budget handed down from the Ronald Reagan Administration.

For some defense officials who have been marking time since Bush was elected in November, the end of Tower’s month-long ordeal came as a relief. “We’re very glad it’s over,” said one official. “I think there’s a broad feeling that the outcome of the vote wasn’t right, but it was even more terrifying to think it could go on for two more weeks while it dragged down the whole national security apparatus.”

But as the Pentagon awaits a new nominee--a process that could leave the Defense Department without a Cabinet secretary until April--the uncertainty is particularly acute on the budget issue.

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‘Two Months Late’

“We are probably at least a month to a month-and-half late and probably will be two months late,” in sending the defense budget to Capitol Hill, said one senior military officer.

“What concerns me is that last year, Congress passed the funding bill on time. I see this as making it impossible for Congress to pass the bills in a timely manner, and we’ll be back to the same problem of people out in the field not knowing what they’ve got and people trying to plan next year’s budgets not knowing what they can plan for this year.”

The effort to cut spending has been launched and presided over by William H. Taft IV, a mild-mannered lawyer brought to the Defense Department in 1981 by then-Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Current and former officials have praised Taft for his stewardship of the budget process.

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Nonetheless, his limited mandate has left critical political issues unaddressed.

In parceling out $6 billion in defense reductions among the military services, for instance, Taft left the Reagan Administration’s $5.6-billion request for the space-based anti-missile defense untouched until the Bush Administration decides how to proceed with the program.

And even if another nominee is named and approved quickly, the new defense secretary will take office under sharp time pressures. Congressional committees will begin to draft funding bills for the Pentagon in about a month, several current and former defense officials noted.

“A secretary of defense is important,” said the Reagan Administration’s last Pentagon chief, Frank C. Carlucci. “Our country needs one and definitely needs one sooner rather than later.”

Without a defense secretary, Carlucci warned, it is “impossible” to make major decisions on arms control and strategic forces. “It makes it difficult to establish durable priorities” if the Pentagon budget is being cut, he added.

Ironically, one positive legacy that Tower is expected to leave the Pentagon is the broad outlines of a sweeping Pentagon management reform plan, already approved by Bush.

Tower’s consulting relationships with defense contractors were widely criticized by those who feared he would not reform the way the Pentagon does business. But the former Texas senator ordered his transition team to make such reform a high priority, according to knowledgeable sources. As a result, the Administration’s next nominee may have to accept Tower’s plan.

Some of that plan may require legislative approval, however, and on nitty-gritty issues, the bitter legacy of the Tower fight may make congressional agreement harder to achieve.

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At the Pentagon, all but eight of 45 positions that require Senate confirmation are still filled by Reagan Administration appointees. As a result, officials are processing paper work, attending meetings and running budget “drills” to explore ways to cut spending. But they complain that there is no arbiter to read the resulting memoranda, make final decisions and--most important--advocate the decisions at the White House and in Congress.

“What’s lost is time in which new initiatives could be taken,” a Democratic congressional aide said. “Yes, aircraft still fly and ships still steam and decisions move forward through the bureaucracy. The ship will go forward, but you cannot change the rudder without a defense secretary.”

On Capitol Hill, where opinions run strong on many of the missing initiatives, the absence of a defense chief may allow lawmakers to step into the void and press their agendas, the Democratic aide said.

“The train is moving in the direction of the lower defense budgets anyway, but if Tower or someone had been there, he might have been able to slow it down,” the aide said.


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