Chuck Hagel’s path to a seat in President Barack Obama’s reshuffled cabinet may prove as tough as John Kerry’s was easy.
While Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, breezed through Senate confirmation yesterday as secretary of state, Republican lawmakers are girding to fight Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary in a hearing tomorrow.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, will confront skepticism and outright opposition from members of his own party who question his support for Israel, his enthusiasm for tough sanctions on Iran and his willingness to shield the defense budget from sharp spending cuts.
The nomination of Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, is shaping up to be the first confirmation fight of Obama’s second term. Leading the opposition at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing will be the panel’s newly named senior Republican, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.
“I’m a ‘no,’” Inhofe said yesterday at the Capitol.
While Kerry won confirmation on a 94-3 vote, with support from 41 of 45 Republicans, Hagel is sure to face a steeper climb. Opposition to Hagel has unleashed a flurry of cable television ads attacking Hagel as anti-Israel, anti-gay and weak on defense, among other things.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina yesterday threatened to delay a vote on Hagel unless outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agrees to testify about last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Pentagon spokesman George Little said by e-mail he didn’t yet know whether Panetta will testify.
With Democrats controlling 55 of the 100 Senate seats, Republicans could defeat Hagel only if they insist on requiring a supermajority of 60 votes to proceed to his confirmation and prevent more than a handful of their members from voting for the nominee.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said yesterday it was “too early to predict” whether he would require a 60-vote threshold.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said he has heard from colleagues who have said they don’t plan to block Hagel with a filibuster, even though they may vote against him.
A pivotal voice will be Arizona Senator John McCain, a fellow Republican and longtime Hagel friend who parted with the Nebraskan over the 2007 Iraq troop surge, which Hagel opposed. Hagel declined to endorse McCain’s 2008 presidential bid.
McCain said yesterday his concerns still weren’t satisfied after “a pleasant conversation” with Hagel. The Arizonan said he intends to ask his former Senate colleague about his opposition to President George W. Bush’s decision to send about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq.
“He said it was the worst blunder since Vietnam,” McCain said of Hagel. “The surge succeeded. Hello?”
Some Republicans have pointed to past votes and positions to portray Hagel as anti-Israel, pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iran.
Hagel, 66, has rejected the criticism, telling his hometown newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska, that “distortions about my record have been astounding.”
Even as he weathers criticism from Republicans, Hagel has had to fend off attacks from some of Obama’s political backers, who have expressed concern that Hagel is not sufficiently supportive of gay rights or women’s rights.
Hagel apologized last month for questioning in 1998 whether an “openly, aggressively gay” man such as James Hormel-- then a nominee to be a U.S. ambassador -- could effectively represent U.S. interests abroad. He also has pledged to work to provide equal benefits to all military service members and to fully implement laws protecting reproductive rights of female troops.
No Democrats have voiced concern about Hagel since New York Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democratic leader, announced his support for the Nebraskan on Jan. 15. Schumer said he decided to support Hagel after winning assurances that Hagel “would do whatever it takes” to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and had apologized for a comment he made about “the Jewish lobby.”
Since leaving the Senate, Hagel has served as co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a director of Chevron Corp. and chairman of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy group based in Washington that urges increased U.S. engagement in world affairs.
As the nomination fight heats up, both sides are recruiting military veterans to help make their case for and against Hagel, who received two Purple Hearts while fighting in Vietnam.
A group of 14 former generals and admirals, including retired Admiral James Lyons and retired Army Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, signed a letter to Congress opposing Hagel that was spearheaded by Frank Gaffney Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Center for Security Policy, a Washington research institute.
Citing Hagel’s description of the defense budget as “bloated,” the former officers said his willingness to make additional cuts “suggests a disqualifying lack of understanding of the dire effects such reductions would have on our defense capabilities.”
In the pro-Hagel camp, Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and Army veteran, will join retired four-star Air Force General Lester Lyles and other veterans in a conference call today to discuss their support.
Corker said he wants to hear Hagel explain his stand on nuclear-weapons reductions.
Hagel is a supporter of Global Zero, an international, nonpartisan group that seeks “the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons,” according to a 2010 Global Zero plan that Hagel co-authored.
“Yes, it’s of concern,” Corker said.