Chuck Hagel fought his way through a daylong onslaught of criticism from Republicans in his confirmation hearing yesterday, widening a partisan rift over President Barack Obama’s choice for defense secretary.
Hagel, a former Republican senator and twice-wounded Vietnam War veteran, struggled at times during seven hours of questioning to explain past votes and statements. Republicans said his record showed reluctance to impose sanctions on Iran and to label militant groups as terrorists as well as a risky inclination to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
“Senator Hagel substantively is far outside the mainstream,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said after the hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While Republicans dominated the day, Democrats control 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate. Senator Carl Levin, who heads the committee, said all of them are likely to end up supporting Obama’s nomination of Hagel to succeed the retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“He really advanced his cause today,” Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said of Hagel after the hearing. “I thought he was responsive, and I thought he kept his cool.”
Levin said his panel may vote on Hagel as soon as Feb. 7.
Even some of the Republicans on the committee most critical of Hagel, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, stopped short of saying they would vote against him. Those Republicans who have come out against Hagel haven’t yet said they’re prepared to demand a supermajority of 60 votes to proceed to his confirmation on the Senate floor.
Depth of Concern
“It depends on the depth of the concern,” said Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican and a Hagel opponent. Asked whether he would try to stop the nomination from coming to a vote, Inhofe said, “No, I’m not ready to say that yet.”
Two more Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, declared their opposition to Hagel yesterday. Today, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Armed Services panel, added his name to the list of Republican opponents.
The choice of Hagel, 66, has produced the first confirmation fight of Obama’s second term.
Reviving a long-running feud that created a rift between Hagel and some Republican colleagues, McCain yesterday faulted the nominee for opposing the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq under President George W. Bush.
“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” McCain demanded of Hagel.
“I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel said.
“History has already made a judgment on the surge, sir, and you were on the wrong side of it,” said McCain, who began his inquiry by calling Hagel an “old friend.”
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, called Hagel’s views favoring nuclear arms reductions “troubling and inconsistent.” Senator Deb Fischer, a Republican from Hagel’s home state of Nebraska, said the nominee holds “extreme views far to the left” of the Obama administration.
Democrats offered occasional words of support.
“You’ve been forthright and strong,” said Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Anticipating criticism over past positions and comments, Hagel said in his opening statement that his record includes more than 3,000 Senate votes, hundreds of interviews and speeches, and a book.
“But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record,” Hagel said.
In his opening statement to the panel, Hagel said, “We will not hesitate to use the full force of the United States military in defense of our security. But we must also be smart, and more importantly wise -- wise -- in how we employ all of our nation’s great power.”
In addition to their tangle over Iraq, McCain pressed Hagel on whether he would support establishing a no-fly zone in Syria and arming the Syrian rebels. When Hagel said those measures would be reviewed, McCain said, “How many more would have to die before you could support” taking those actions.
Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, pressed Hagel on whether he still believes that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” as Hagel put it in an interview he gave for a 2008 book by historian Aaron David Miller.
When Wicker asked if he thinks the pro-Israel lobby uses “intimidation,” Hagel said, “I should have used ‘influence’” instead. Hagel has previously apologized for using the term “Jewish lobby,” saying he should have said “the pro-Israel lobby.”
Hagel also was faulted by several Republicans for refusing to sign a congressional letter to the European Union seeking a terrorist designation for the militant Islamist group Hezbollah. Hagel said that while he agrees Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, he didn’t think lawmakers should be instructing foreign leaders.
“It’s our president who conducts foreign policy,” he said.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said Hagel’s record sends “the worst possible signal” to U.S. adversaries, criticized the nominee for voting against a measure designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Hagel said he was concerned that such a move would permit the president to go to war against Iran without seeking congressional authorization.
Cruz played a tape of Hagel responding to a question on Al-Jazeera television in which he appeared to agree with a questioner’s premise that the U.S. is perceived as “the world’s bully.” Hagel told Cruz he would need to review the context of the remark.
In his testimony, Hagel said that “all options must be on the table” to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He pledged to “ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge” in the Mideast.
Hagel also said he had “serious concerns” about the automatic across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration that will take effect in March unless Congress and Obama agree on an alternative.
On issues that may appeal to Obama’s Democratic base, Hagel also promised to fully implement the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented gay troops from serving openly, and to work with the military services to open ground combat positions to women.
In a development that may clear the way for a committee vote on Hagel’s nomination, Panetta has agreed to testify about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, according to Tara Andringa, a Levin spokeswoman. She said a hearing examining the attack is likely to be scheduled for Feb. 7.
Graham had threatened to delay a vote on Hagel’s nomination unless Panetta answered questions about the military’s lack of resources in the region to defend and rescue Americans as the attack unfolded.