Senators sat down Friday with Robert Gates for the first time since President Bush selected him to become the next defense secretary, and said they would push for him to be confirmed by the end of the year.
"Over the course of the morning, I've had the privilege to talk to Mr. Gates about where we're going in the future, where we're going today and the specifics of the nomination process," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Frist and Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will take over as minority leader next year, said Gates' confirmation was a top priority for the lame-duck session.
Confirmation hearing Dec. 4
"We're optimistic that Bob Gates will be confirmed before the first of the year," McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters in a brief appearance with Gates and Frist before meeting privately with Gates.
Gates responded: "If I'm confirmed, I look forward to working with you all."
The visit was the first since Bush on Nov. 8 announced Gates would replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The nominee is expected to testify publicly before the Senate Armed Services Committee the week of Dec. 4.
The former CIA director was serving as a member of an independent, blue-ribbon panel assessing options in Iraq when Bush asked him to replace Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief. Gates, 63, has served in numerous national security jobs under six previous presidents, including Bush's father, and is president of Texas A&M University.
In the afternoon, Gates was scheduled to visit Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mo., Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., in line to take over Warner's position as chairman next year, is expected to meet with Gates on Monday.
Iraq key issue
Members of Congress often meet privately with high-profile nominees before public confirmation hearings to speak candidly and gauge where the political nominee stands on critical issues.
The war in Iraq is expected to be a dominant issue for lawmakers as they speak with Gates. One day after the Nov. 7 elections, Bush acknowledged that the lack of progress being made in Iraq cost Republicans votes and handed majority control of Congress to Democrats. In a bid to salvage American support, Bush said he would consider a change in course and asked Rumsfeld to step down.
Democrats did not immediately oppose Gates.
Reid told The Associated Press that a top priority for the remainder of the lame-duck session will be confirming Gates. "The sooner we can move it forward the sooner we can get rid of Rumsfeld," he said.