Obama's defense secretary nominee faces Congress

Ashton Carter makes his case for Defense secretary
Ashton Carter makes his case for Defense secretary

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Washington (CNN)President Barack Obama's pick to become the next Defense secretary said Wednesday that he's likely to support a push to provide arms to Ukraine's military.

Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing that he's "very much inclined" to support giving "lethal" arms -- which could include anti-tank and anti-air systems -- to Ukraine to combat pro-Russian rebels.
"We need to support Ukraine in defending themselves," Carter said.
His comments come amid reports that the White House is considering shifting its approach to the crisis in Ukraine by providing more arms to the government there -- at the risk of escalating a conflict with Russia.
    Carter fielded questions from the committee about a broad range of foreign policy challenges, with Republican chairman Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and others grilling him on ISIS, U.S. troop withdrawal plans in Afghanistan, the influence of Iran in the Middle East and more.
    His confirmation -- much like one for Obama's pick for attorney general, Loretta Lynch -- hasn't focused much on Carter's qualifications. He's a former No. 2 official at the Pentagon, well-liked by members of both parties, holds a doctorate degree in physics and has shuffled between the Department of Defense and academia for much of his career.
    Instead, senators have turned the hearing into a critique of Obama's policies.
    McCain blasted delays in major programs and cost overruns, and said the United States needs to better define its approach to battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
    "Let there be no doubt: We still do not have a viable strategy to counter ISIL, and if you are not winning in war, you are losing," McCain said.
    Graham also laid into the Obama administration for failing to adequately challenge ISIS, which he called a major threat. "They hold a large territory, they're rich, they have a lot of crazy people under their control," Graham said.
    He also laid into the sequester, which has axed hundreds of billions of dollars in defense spending -- which gave Carter some common ground with the Republican.
    Graham asked Carter if he could explain "why in the hell would the Congress be devastating the military budget?"
    Carter responded: "No, I can't," and added that he's "against the sequester."
    Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri prodded Carter about sexual assaults in the military -- including recent Pentagon reports that have indicated many of the victims who report those assaults face retaliation.
    Carter didn't commit to any specific changes to Department of Defense policies, but said he appreciates "the heat" lawmakers have brought to the issue.
    "This is a crime," Carter said. "And its prevalence suggests we're not doing everything that we can, that we need to do, to root out that crime."
    Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) quizzed Carter about Obama's long-standing pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, and extracted a pledge that Carter wouldn't speed up the timetable for transferring or releasing the detainees now held there.
    Carter, like Lynch, pledged to improve relations with Congress that had been strained while Chuck Hagel was Defense secretary and Eric Holder was attorney general.
    "I pledge to make needed change in the Pentagon but also to seek support from Congress, because I know that in the end, Congress holds the power of the purse," Carter said. "I look forward to a partnership with this committee, and what can be a period of historic advance."
    Carter, who served as deputy defense secretary until December 2013, will continue to face questions from the Senate panel on everything from the U.S. fight against ISIS to the planned military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the President's goal of shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
    Carter is well-liked and well-respected by senators in both parties and is expected to be confirmed after spending weeks making the rounds on Capitol Hill for one-on-one meetings with senators.
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    McCain, the committee's chairman, has been one of the Obama administration's most vocal critics on foreign policy and military strategy. The hawkish senator has criticized the administration on everything from the fight against ISIS to the U.S.'s position in confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine to the administration's unwillingness to get involved in the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar el-Assad.
    Carter's nomination comes after the Obama announced in November that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would step down. While the White House characterized Hagel's resignation as his own decision, several sources told CNN then that Hagel was forced out.
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    Obama's two former defense secretaries, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, were both critical of Obama in books and interviews after they left the administration. Some have suggested that Carter will have limited influence in the position as Obama already relies on a small circle of advisers to make his top foreign policy and military decisions.
    In written answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter affirmed that he would advise Obama to stray from current plans if the situation warranted. Carter said he would consider recommending revisions to Obama's plan to withdraw military troops from Afghanistan if the situation warranted.