Senate likely to confirm Tower - with scrutiny. Seeks assurances that defense secretary will cut costs, hire good managers

A few years back, John Tower was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, casting about for ways to trim some fat out of a bloated defense budget. One day, he hit on a clever idea: Why not ask his fellow senators to volunteer the closing of a military base or two back home? So Mr. Tower sent a letter to his colleagues soliciting offers. One senator braved a symbolic suggestion. The rest greeted the query with silence. The idea was quietly shelved.

This appears to be one of the only times Tower ever tried to lead a charge against spiraling defense expenditures - and observers of the time consider even that effort to have been little more than a ploy to show how tough it would be to reduce the defense budget. Clearly, President-elect George Bush's choice for defense secretary does not enjoy the reputation of a cost-cutter.

For four years, Tower served as chairman of the Senate's defense panel, the climax of a 24-year Senate career that began in 1961 when he slid to a narrow victory in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson. During the years as chairman, he helped effect the largest peace-time military buildup in US history, fighting opponents on both sides of the aisle to win congressional approval for hefty annual defense spending increases requested by the Reagan administration.

Now, Tower has accepted Mr. Bush's invitation to become defense secretary at a time when politicians of both parties are in a parsimonious mood, and everyone talks about the need to reduce the US budget deficit. Consequently, the Pentagon's budget will be pinched; the only remaining question appears to concern the role a Secretary Tower will play in overseeing it.

Many critics say Tower is too much the defense booster and too close to military contractors to cut the budget and reform the Pentagon's weapons-procurement system. But at the press conference where Bush announced Tower's selection, Tower argued that he would be more like the person who launched that effort to close the military bases than the one who earned a reputation as the Senate's superhawk.

Indeed, Tower's reputation as a Pentagon apologist seems to be overstated. As Armed Services chairman, he could be critical of the Reagan administration: He once blocked development of the MX missile, when White House officials failed to settle on details surrounding its basing. Another time, his committee refused to finance an attack helicopter that went way over budget.

Moreover, few question whether Tower is sufficiently knowledgeable about defense matters to take on the secretary's role. Prickly and hard-driving, Tower had a reputation for mastering the details of the Pentagon's budget while serving as Armed Services chairman. After retiring from the Senate in 1985, he served for more than a year as chief US negotiator on strategic arms in Geneva.

Nevertheless, Tower has enough critics to ensure that confirmation hearings before the Senate will be searching. For the past three years, he has been a consultant to some of the country's biggest weapons contractors, including LTV, Martin Marietta, Rockwell, and Textron.

Such associations have provoked accusations that he is tied too closely to the military-industrial complex to effect the far-reaching reforms in Pentagon management practices that many observers believe are long overdue.

Some members of Congress are also wondering whether Tower's lack of managerial experience leaves him ill-suited for the post, particularly in light of the difficult choices facing the new defense secretary. One of the rumored stipulations accompanying Tower's selection was that he would be surrounded by hard-nosed managerial types keeping a careful eye on the bottom line.

Lawmakers have begun to pick up on this theme, and pledge to take a close look at the sorts of people Tower plans to surround himself with, before voting to confirm.

Reflective of this view was a statement released by the present Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia. While praising Tower's ``substantial expertise and experience,'' Senator Nunn's statement went on to say that the Senate ``will want to know who will be appointed to the senior positions on his defense management team.'' While Tower's ultimate confirmation seems virtually assured, Democrats say they want to put Tower on record explaining how he will change various Pentagon practices.

The tradition of public courtesy senators extend to one another may temper many of the blows that someone of Tower's views might be expected to sustain. Still, one Democratic Armed Services Committee staff member says, ``the problems that the Pentagon has got to deal over the next few years deserve more than a sham-confirmation.''

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