Senators have joined pro-Israel and gay-rights groups in sharply questioning whether former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel is a suitable defense secretary nominee. But lawmakers have avoided launching the kinds of harsh rhetorical attacks used recently to disqualify another Cabinet candidate. Nor have they threatened to use Senate maneuvers to prevent a vote on the chamber floor. (AFP)
Conspicuously absent from the criticism of U.S. President Barack Obama’s pick for defense secretary are key rhetorical and procedural threats, suggesting the confirmation process will be more bluster than blockade.
Senators have joined pro-Israel and gay-rights groups in sharply questioning whether former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel is a suitable defense secretary nominee. But lawmakers have avoided launching the kinds of harsh rhetorical attacks used recently to disqualify another Cabinet candidate. Nor have they threatened to use Senate maneuvers to prevent a vote on the chamber floor.
“It’s unfortunate that so many people are coming out as ‘no’ votes before the first word of testimony has happened. That is very unusual,” said one source familiar with the confirmation preparations. “You have paid political ads, people like [former Pennsylvania GOP] Sen. Rick Santorum saying they’ll fight the nomination.
“So what’s different is there is a strong political undertone here,” the source said. “This is more Republicans trying to weaken President Obama than it is about policy issues. They smell blood in the water, and they’re going after the president. This is not about substance. It’s all politics.”
Ironically, as the source notes, Hagel’s fellow Republicans have led the charge in fighting his nomination. But a close examination of their words and desires during the nominee’s coming confirmation hearing suggests Hagel — though likely with some political bruises — will win confirmation.
The harsher rhetoric and threats of procedural blocks were on full display last year as lawmakers tried to prevent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice from being nominated for secretary of state. GOP senators, led by John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, used terms like “not qualified” and “not very bright.”
They repeatedly accused her of lying to the American people in public and lawmakers behind closed doors about the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., harshly questioned Rice’s judgment, suggesting she lacked the kind needed to be America’s top diplomat.
Graham told Defense News in mid-November he would place a hold on Rice’s nomination if Obama tapped her for secretary of state because of her role in the Benghazi attack’s fallout. Weeks later, she withdrew her name from consideration for a Cabinet post.
Two months later, an examination of GOP lawmakers’ statements about Hagel reveals such sharp rhetoric and threats are nowhere to be found.
One of the most stringent anti-Hagel Republican senators has been Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn flatly says he “will not support Chuck Hagel’s [expected] nomination to the Department of Defense [because] his record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me.
“[Hagel’s] opposition to Iranian sanctions and support for direct, unconditional talks with its leaders is both at odds with current U.S. policy and a threat to global security. To make matters worse, he has called for direct negotiations with Hamas,” Cornyn said last week. “As Iran becomes increasingly hostile and gains influence in the region, the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel.”
Graham and a handful of other GOP senators have been equally critical and have bluntly said they will vote no on Hagel.
Washington veterans are busy prepping Hagel for what the source called “the things every defense secretary nominee gets asked about.” That list includes the necessary budget level, acquisition reform, whether to allow women in combat, and openly homosexual troops.
“But you always have to expect the unexpected in a confirmation process,” the source said. “You know the opposition research will continue. The team has a mix of people who are new to the process and people who are very experienced with it. Sen. Hagel has the right kind of expertise available to him.
“I think this will be a very difficult confirmation process,” the source said. “You have people who have never met Chuck Hagel, never heard him utter a word, but have said already they will vote against him.”
Still, some senators have been much more measured than Cornyn and Graham.
“Chuck was a neighbor in Nebraska and a friend, so I think we’ve got to give him the deference, as a former fellow senator, that he deserves,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in a late-December interview. “I do think, as many of my colleagues have stated, if he does get nominated, during the confirmation process there are positions and statements that he’ll have to answer questions about … particularly some of the more sensitive ones in terms of foreign policy. I think that’s a natural part of the process.”
In a Jan. 7 statement, McCain said he has “serious concerns about positions Sen. Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process before the Senate Armed Services Committee.”
That committee will be tasked with conducting Hagel’s nomination hearing, or hearings. The panel’s incoming ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Hagel’s nomination “deserves to be fully vetted.”
“The Armed Services Committee has a time-tested process to consider nominations, and I am committed to upholding that process,” Inhofe said. “I am aware of the serious concerns about some of his policy positions, his record, and some of his comments that have been publicly reported. I will be seeking clarification from him about these concerns as his nomination proceeds.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wants to hear Hagel answer questions during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about his views on the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Iran and other issues before deciding how he will vote.
Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, said the Obama administration likely will target Inhofe and other GOP senators who have a more constrained view of the use of American military power.
“This nomination really exposes a division in the GOP between the old realists and the neoconservatives,” Korb said.
Those more-measured GOP members appear to outnumber the Cornyn-Graham faction, indicating the Obama White House will likely attract enough Republican votes on the Senate floor to get Hagel confirmed, sources and analysts said.
“When Senate Republicans take a close look at Chuck Hagel’s voting record during his two terms in the chamber, they will find it hard to oppose him,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. “He may be a cosmopolitan internationalist when it comes to foreign policy, but on core domestic issues like school prayer, abortion, assault weapons and racial preferences he has been very conservative.”
Hagel’s case harkens back to 1991, when former President George H.W. Bush put forward a controversial nominee, future Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to be CIA director in 1991.
Senators had concerns about Gates’ role in the Iran-Contra Scandal and whether he was part of alleged corruption at the agency during a stint as its deputy director.
“Despite that, Gates was confirmed, with 31 senators opposed,” Korb said.
In that vote, 22 Democrats joined 42 GOP senators to confirm him. Korb and others expect a similar conclusion — though with the party totals flipped — when the Senate votes on Hagel.
“I fully expect him to be confirmed. I think the Senate will accord him the privilege of an up-or-down vote,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director who has been involved in nine defense secretary confirmation processes. “And I don’t think a filibuster would be put against him or sustained.
“I find it hard to believe he’ll be denied an up-or-down vote. If he gets it he’ll afford himself very well during the hearings, and I’m confident that a lot of the distortions of his record will be corrected, and a lot of the facts will be smoked out.”
While some senators who hail from states in the northeastern U.S. with large Jewish populations, such as New York’s Chuck Schumer, have raised concerns about Hagel’s past comments on Israel, they have not indicated they will place a hold or even that they will vote no.
For them, the optics matter.
“Some of these Democrats have to be concerned,” Korb said. “They have to say they want to hear what Hagel has to say at the hearings as cover.”
Thompson predicted few Democratic defections, saying the confirmation is linked to coming battles over sequestration, the debt ceiling and a government shutdown.