WASHINGTON – When Robert Gates testifies before a Senate panel in two weeks, Democrats will voice their opposition to administration war policies and gauge Gates' willingness to change them. But they probably won't stand in his way to becoming the next defense secretary.
Democrats have begun lining up behind Gates, indicating they are inclined to vote for him if he meets two general criteria: He agrees a new approach in Iraq is needed and demonstrates he will hold sufficient political clout at the White House.
"We really do have to get a strong signal that he has been given a free hand to make whatever changes he thinks appropriate, and that within the administration he will have unimpeded access to the president," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., in an interview Tuesday. "Those things are critical to success."
The senators say they are not immediately opposing Gates largely because his confirmation would lead to the departure of Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon chief who led the U.S. invasion in Iraq and staunchly defended the war even as public approval plummeted.
The initial support of Bush's nominee comes even though Gates is the same man once accused of distorting intelligence for political reasons — a primary charge Democrats level against the Bush administration in the war in Iraq.
In 1991, 31 Democrats voted against confirming Gates as CIA director, citing charges he had pressured intelligence analysts to develop conclusions that fit President Reagan's policies and turned a blind eye to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which arms were sold to the Iranians and the cash used to supply the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
Twelve of the senators who rejected Gates 15 years ago remain today, including Carl Levin, D-Mich., Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Also not working in Gates' favor is a career built more on ending the Cold War than on Middle East expertise, and his lack of experience managing a budget and staff as large as the Pentagon's, the government's biggest.
But when Bush announced Gates' nomination on Nov. 8, Democrats began extending their support. Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will be majority leader next year, and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who will head the panel that oversees the Pentagon's budget, said they hoped Gates was swiftly confirmed, while Biden said he was inclined to vote for him.
Reed and other Democrats say they will focus more of their attention on Gates' views of Iraq than his dealings in the intelligence.
"I will be watching the upcoming confirmation process very carefully to discern whether Mr. Gates has the capacity to both listen to and lead our military in a new direction," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
Inouye, who with Sen. Ted Stevens met with Gates on Monday, said he had known Gates for at least 30 years and that he would vote for him as he did in 1991. He said he and Stevens, R-Alaska, top members of the defense appropriations subcommittee, used the meeting to assure Gates he would not play politics with military funding.
"I expect him to be confirmed," Inouye said.
Other Democrats — including Levin, who next year will chair the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy — are holding their cards close on Gates but say they are eager to see if he is willing to advocate a new Iraq policy. Clinton, D-N.Y., and Kennedy, D-Mass., are expected to meet with Gates in the next few weeks.
"The one thing he has going for him ... is that we want the change to take place very quickly," said Reid. "So it's to our interest to have this change at the head of the Defense Department as soon as possible."
According to an AP-Ipsos poll released Tuesday, only 31 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of Iraq.
Democrats say they are impressed by Gates' willingness to work with their party. Gates is a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, a bipartisan group of former senior U.S. officials and policy experts who meet regularly to discuss international affairs. Also, before being nominated by Bush, Gates was a member of a high-profile bipartisan panel assessing options in Iraq.
Reed, a senior member of the Armed Services panel, on Tuesday called Gates a "realistic voice on foreign affairs and somebody who deliberately tries to draw upon a cross section of views." He said he also was impressed Gates was willing to step out of private life to take on the challenge of Iraq.
"Those are all good qualities. There's a huge task facing him," Reed said.
Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he was not surprised. To oppose Gates or focus too much on his past at the CIA would be to pick the wrong battle with Bush if Democrats want Iraq policy to change, he said.
"I think they'll want to look forward," Ornstein said.