WASHINGTON — Rep. John M. McHugh said Thursday he supports keeping women in combat support roles, despite pushing a measure four years ago that would have removed them from such service.
At his confirmation hearing to become secretary of the Army, Mr. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he was merely fulfilling his responsibilities on the House Armed Services Committee by putting the measure forward — and that his real work was in trying to scale it back amid widespread objections.
The women-in-combat issue was one of few even mildly contentious matters Mr. McHugh faced in a friendly hearing that lasted not quite three hours. He also fielded questions about campaign contributions linked to a defunct lobbying firm and about the growing number of suicides in the Army.
Committee Chairman Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., said he expects a quick confirmation. The panel could vote on the confirmation next week, and the full Senate could follow suit quickly, avoiding a wait over the August recess.
"Women in uniform today are not just valuable, they're irreplaceable," Mr. McHugh said in response to questions from Mr. Levin.
"There's been a lot of confusion and misinformation on that issue," Mr. McHugh said.
Although the issue is a few years old, it may crop up again. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., encouraged Mr. McHugh, if confirmed, to look more closely again at women's role in the Army, although the senator did not say explicitly whether he wants to increase their combat roles. The current policy has been in place since 1994.
Mr. Webb did say that officials should look at additional operational specialties that could be opened for women, however.
In the past, Mr. Webb has opposed the push to expand women's role in war fighting, and the issue caused him trouble in his campaign for the Senate in 2006. In 1979, he wrote an essay in The Washingtonian against combat roles for women, saying, "No benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat."
On Thursday, Mr. Webb noted the measure Mr. McHugh introduced in 2005 would have barred women from certain units that were deployed in Iraq.
"I don't want to go back and rehash that," Mr. Webb said of the legislation. The proposal, part of an annual defense bill, fizzled out in House-Senate negotiations as Mr. McHugh looked for a way to cool the controversy.
At the time, Mr. McHugh was carrying the proposal for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, R-Calif. He introduced it in the Personnel Subcommittee, of which he was chairman, after Mr. Hunter directed him the night before to do so. Mr. Hunter said then that he was merely trying to put in writing a policy the Army has practiced, holding women back from units that deploy to war zones.
"At the end of the day, I work for him," Mr. McHugh said in an interview after Thursday's hearing.
At the hearing, the congressman said he strongly supports the current policy, in which women are not put into direct combat roles but are included in support units that are at risk of entering combat, and that the policy is working "for the moment."
During the uproar, Mr. McHugh said the idea of putting women into direct combat is "very troubling to me."
Although Mr. McHugh was not surprised that the issue came up — it did in private meetings with senators leading up to the hearing, too, he said — it has been absent from major debates about military policy the past few years. Another issue with more visibility, the role of gays and lesbians in the Army, generated some discussion Thursday as well.
Asked by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., about the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bars openly gay service members, Mr. McHugh said, "It's a serious issue" and that he expects President Barack Obama to press forward on a reversal of the policy. That would require legislation.
His own role, Mr. McHugh said, will be to gather information to help the administration make recommendations and implement any policy change.
"They seemed content with that," he said.
Mr. Levin has promised a hearing on the issue this year, prodded by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and others.
Thursday's toughest questioning came from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the panel's ranking Republican. A constant critic of congressional earmarks in spending bills, Mr. McCain questioned the congressman about his own record on earmarks and his acceptance of campaign contributions from individuals connected with the PMA Group, a defunct lobbying outfit under investigation by federal authorities for its dealings with lawmakers.
Mr. McHugh accepted more than $160,000 from those sources, ranking 16th in Congress.
While Mr. McCain said he did not believe Mr. McHugh had done anything improper, he called the contributions a "blemish" on an otherwise exemplary record in Congress. Still, he said he strongly supports the nomination.
Mr. McHugh said he has not returned any of the PMA-connected money but asked his accountant to look for "ghost" contributors, a problem identified by investigators looking at PMA. He said he has never asked for an earmark in exchange for campaign money and that he would consider giving the PMA-connected money to charity.
Much of the hearing focused on the effects of warfare on soldiers and their families. Mr. McHugh told the committee that 87 soldiers have committed suicide this year. While the Pentagon has a five-year study under way to examine the problem, he said, "We can't afford to wait five years."
The popular wisdom is that the strain of deployments is responsible, but Mr. McCain cited statistics indicating that almost a third were by people who have never been deployed.
"What is it?" Mr. McCain said. "Does it go back to recruiting?"
"What else is happening?" Mr. McHugh said. "I just don't know."
However, he said, when asked about the issue again by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., the Army needs to keep working toward acceptance of troubled soldiers' seeking help. The service has a program called "ask, care, escort" to encourage soldiers to help their comrades, he said. "We have to make sure this isn't just something on a piece of paper."
While Mr. McHugh has lived his congressional life on the House side of the Capitol, he learned he has friends on the other. One of them is Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who heaped praise on the congressman despite occasional tension between their offices over the years.
"John McHugh is my friend, my colleague and a man of great integrity," Mr. Schumer said as he introduced the congressman to the committee. He hailed Mr. McHugh for working "with grace and a quiet ease."
Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, followed up Mr. Schumer's introduction by saying, "I don't think I've heard Mr. Schumer speak so well of a Republican in my life."