The Senate opened committee hearings Tuesday on the nomination of Richard Cheney to become Secretary of Defense, and already it's clear that the U.S. Representative from Wyoming should have a fairly easy time of it.

So easy that the nomination could reach the Senate floor as soon as next Friday and be acted on even before the lawmakers start their two-week Easter recess.What a contrast to the six weeks it took the Senate to review and finally reject John Tower's nomination for the same post. And what a relief. Gone is the acrimony that marked action on Tower. Gone, too, is the innuendo about the nominee's private life.

To some extent, this contrast shows that Senate Democrats meant what they said when they indicated they did not want the fight over Tower to leave lasting strains in relations between Congress and the White House.

Likewise, the speed with which President Bush sent Cheney's nomination to the Senate reflects the ability of the new chief executive to recover from a setback and revives confidence in his ability to run the government.

But also give plenty of credit to Cheney himself, who has long been highly popular among congressional Democrats as well as Republicans even though he is highly conservative and a GOP loyalist. That popularity reflects not only Cheney's outstanding ability but also his willingness to listen to all sides.

So far, the only questions raised about Cheney concern his lack of direct experience with defense issues and his lack of military service during the Vietnam war. But such previous defense secretaries as Charles Wilson, Neil McElroy, James Schlesinger, and Harold Brown lacked military experience, too, without its impairing their effectiveness. During his stint as President Ford's chief of staff, Cheney participated in daily meetings about national security issues. Besides, Cheney is a quick study, and has taken a steady interest in defense during his six terms in the House of Representatives.

A few eyebrows may be raised just because the Senate opened committee hearings on the new nomination before it received an FBI background check on Cheney. But Cheney has successfully undergone two such checks previously: Once, in 1969, when he became a top assistant at the former Office of Economic Opportunity, and again in 1975, before he became White House chief of staff in the Ford administration.

Let's hope the Senate does, indeed, expedite action on the new nomination. During the long squabble over Tower, many decisions on defense matters had to wait. Among them are decisions on how deeply to cut the defense budget, what to do about Star Wars, what kind of nuclear weapons are needed and how many will be enough.

Clearly, Cheney will need a running start at the Pentagon.