President Barack Obama on Tuesday picked a Republican congressman known for his even temperament, willingness to work with Democrats and a steadfast support for the troops to become the top civilian leader of the Army.
Rep. John McHugh, who grew up in a middle-class family in his district of Watertown, N.Y., could be a smartpick for the new president. It makes good on Obama's promise to reach across the aisle and minimizes, if noteliminates, congressional opposition.
At the same time, taking McHugh out of the House gives Democrats a better chance at grabbing his seat in thenext election.
Obama said McHugh is "committed to keeping America's Army the best trained the best equipped, the best landforce the world has ever seen." It is the second time Obama has chosen a Republican for a high-ranking position atthe Pentagon, itself a conservative institution. If confirmed, McHugh will join Defense Secretary Robert Gates,chosen by Obama to hold over from George W. Bush's Republican administration.
"The Army's always had a special place in my heart," said McHugh, who has also served as co-chair of the Houseof Representatives Army Caucus and member of the Board of Visitors of the United States Military Academy atWest Point.
McHugh's replacement will likely be decided by a special election that New York Gov. David Paterson wouldschedule in the Republican-leaning district. The governor said he won't announce an election until McHugh isconfirmed.
When Hunter proposed legislation banning women in certain combat support roles, McHugh was reluctant tosign on and the proposal fizzled.
McHugh also has agreed that the question of whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military --the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy -- should be reviewed.
"While some will argue that much has changed since 1993, and the current law is no longer relevant or needed,one thing has not changed in those 15 years," McHugh said at an Armed Services Committee hearing last year. "Asit was in 1993, the question of whether the law is to be changed should ultimately rest on the matters of militaryreadiness, morale, good order, and discipline." As a former longtime chair of the committee's personnelsubcommittee, McHugh is more than familiar with some of the main issues facing the Army today -- pay, medicalcare, a soaring suicide rate and the need to keep young officers from leaving the service.
In recent years, McHugh also has focused on easing the strain on soldiers and Marines stretched and stressed byback-to-back combat tours -- a problem the Army would like to solve partly by lengthening time between tours.
McHugh also has devoted himself to protecting and expanding Fort Drum in northern New York, home of theArmy's 10th Mountain Division. He and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton even wrote a letter of protest to afictional character on the television show "The West Wing" after an episode suggested closing the base.
Fellow lawmakers lauded Obama's choice for Army secretary and McHugh's experience.
"His work on the Armed Services Committee has made him one of our nation's foremost military experts andadvocates, and his experience will be invaluable as Secretary of the Army, particularly as our nation continues tofight terrorism and other global threats to our security," House Republican Leader John Boehner said in astatement.
"The Army is in excellent hands with John McHugh," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton,D.Mo., said.
Since taking office, Obama has said he wanted to include Republicans in his administration.
Obama also selected former Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois as transportation secretary. And he tried toget Republican New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg to be his commerce secretary. A week after his nomination,Gregg withdrew, citing "irresolvable conflicts" with the Democratic president.
If confirmed, McHugh's appointment would set off a special election for the House seat he's held for nine terms.Democrats held on to a conservative district in the state earlier this year after Kirsten Gillibrand was appointedto the Senate to fill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vacant seat.
McHugh would replace current Army Secretary Pete Geren, also a former lawmaker, who was appointed to thepost in 2007 after his predecessor was forced to resign in the wake of revelations about poor outpatient treatmentof wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.