WASHINGTON — LES ASPIN sounded a bit wistful. He was back in the hearing room of the House Armed Services Committee where he had once presided as chairman - but this time he was on the other side of the table, as secretary of defense.
"It's a little bit like coming home," Mr. Aspin said drily. "It's a little bit like coming home and finding that they've changed the locks and rented out your room."
Last week wasn't the best of times for the Clinton administration's Pentagon chief. Still recovering from health problems that have slowed him down since his confirmation, he returned to Capitol Hill only to meet with a lukewarm reception and hints of looming disputes.
For one thing, many lawmakers are restive about a Clinton defense budget that by Aspin's own admission treads water, without canceling a single major weapon.
For another thing, the presidential proposal to allow homosexuals in the military is a controversy that just won't go away. Hammering together any workable proposal on this issue will be a difficult job, considering how polarized positions on allowing gays in the military are in Washington.
But Aspin remains positive. "I am fairly convinced that there is a way in which we can put this thing together," he said hopefully in a Senate hearing last week.
Aspin's budget problem stems from the awkward position in which every incoming presidential administration finds itself. For Congress to complete its budget cycle on time, administration budget proposals have to be submitted by early spring at the latest. Yet in the short interval after inauguration day there is little time to do more than tinker with existing budget plans.
Thus the $263-billion proposed 1994 defense budget Aspin was defending last week differed little in structure from that proposed by the former Bush administration, though through nicks and trims it would spend about $11 billion less.
For all the talk of a post-cold-war military, no major weapons program begun in response to a no-longer-existent Soviet threat was canceled.
Many lawmakers were particularly critical of plans for tactical aircraft modernization. Money for four new planes remains in the budget: an Air Force F-22 fighter; a Navy AX long-range strike aircraft; an updated F/A-18 Navy fighter; and a lightweight Air Force multi-role plane, possibly an upgraded F-16.
IN the past, Aspin himself has said the Pentagon can't afford all these aircraft. Not only that, he still says they cannot - it is just that the Pentagon has not yet decided which of them to cancel. In the meantime, funding for all continues.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, Senate Armed Services chairman, said Congress is unlikely to put a down payment on all the planes knowing that some money would be wasted.
Aspin's defense is that he has launched a bottom-up review of post-cold-war forces that will reshape the Pentagon toward Clinton priorities. Results of this scrub might be in by the fall, he said, so that one of the four planes could still be pulled from plans at the last moment.
But that might not be good enough. "I don't believe Congress as a whole is willing to wait on some of these major issues," Senator Nunn said on April 1.
The bottom-up review is a study of typically Aspinesque proportions - that is to say, far-reaching. It is supposed to address competing roles and missions of the military services, among other things, as well as force structure and the whole defense acquisition process.
Robert Gaskin, vice president of Business Executives for National Security, says he thinks Aspin is certainly intellectual enough to address questions of such size. The problem, he says, is that since Aspin still has gaping holes in his appointed staff, and the military might just run away with the study process.
"The services are going to be far better organized, as they always are, to fight for the programs they want," says Mr. Gaskin, who himself worked as a Pentagon planner during the Bush presidency.
That the Clinton administration continues to be dogged by a perception that it doesn't care about the military does not help Aspin's task.
Personally, though Aspin has had his differences in the past with senior military leaders, at least the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) know he understands and respects their culture.
At one point last week, JCS chief Gen. Colin Powell, sitting side by side with his new Pentagon boss in the House Armed Services hearing room, reminisced about the debates he and Aspin used to have there over military policy. "We continue to have wonderful debates, but the outcome is now more certain," said General Powell.