The Cable

Carter, Not Hagel, to Brief the Defense Budget on Capitol Hill

The next defense secretary will hit the ground running, defending the Pentagon's 2016 budget request in front of Congress.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Addresses The Sequestration
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 01: U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) leaves as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter takes over during a news briefing March 1, 2013 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Hagel spoke on the impact of the sequestration to the Department of Defense. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One of Ashton Carter’s first jobs as defense secretary? Head to Capitol Hill to present and defend the Pentagon’s 2016 budget, a planning document he’s had little opportunity to shape.

Chuck Hagel, who is planning to stay on as SecDef until his successor is sworn in, was expected to handle the annual round of congressional budget hearings. But, according to defense and Hill sources, that task is now going to fall to Carter, who only stepped down as deputy defense secretary a year ago.

Because work on the defense budget begins at least a year out, it’s likely Carter was involved in the early stages of the 2016 budget. But even with a Pentagon pro like Carter, who knows the department inside and out, the budget schedule will throw him into some of the thorniest acquisition and personnel issues right off the bat.

Carter is not losing any time when it comes to cultivating good relations on Capitol Hill, and has begun meeting with senators in preparation for his confirmation hearing. On Tuesday, he met with Sen. John McCain, the new Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Great meeting today with the future Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter — I’m confident he’ll do a fine job,” McCain tweeted.

Hagel is being spared the congressional budget briefings partly because Rep. Mac Thornberry, the new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is looking to delay testimony from the defense secretary to give the panel time to delve more deeply into the Defense Department’s budget request, a Capitol Hill staffer told FP.

That means the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will serve as wrap-up witnesses — rather than kicking off the congressional budget season, as is typically done.

Under the new timeline, Hagel will most likely have left the Pentagon by the time the House Armed Services Committee holds its briefing. It looks like the other three congressional defense committees are following suit — waiting until Carter takes over the job.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said he had no new information to share about precisely when Hagel might leave.

Hagel “remains firmly focused on his duties and on making sure our troops and their families continue to get the support they need to conduct missions around the world,” Kirby said. “For him, a big part of that commitment means overseeing the final preparations of the fiscal year 2016 budget submission.”

Hagel’s last day on the job is dependent on when Carter is confirmed by Congress, but his formal farewell ceremony is planned for Jan. 28 at Joint Base Myer-Henderson in Arlington, Va.

Carter’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for the first week of February. The Obama administration will release its 2016 budget request that same week, on Feb. 2.

At the Pentagon, budget day usually involves back-to-back briefings on each of the military services’ spending plans. Typically, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs hold the first briefing of the day, but last year was a little different: Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey gave a preview of the budget a few weeks before it was rolled out.

Hagel will still be in the job Feb. 2, but it hasn’t been decided yet whether he’ll brief the public that day. If he doesn’t, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work could stand in.

Later that week, Hagel is planning to head to Brussels for a NATO meeting of defense ministers on Feb. 5. This will likely be his last trip abroad as defense secretary.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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