Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, left, greets Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., on Jan. 22 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The U.S. Senate’s top Democrat on defense issues partially deflated a Republican member’s threat to block Chuck Hagel’s nomination to become defense secretary.
At issue is a vow Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., made late Monday on Fox News that he intends to place a hold on Hagel’s nomination until outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies before Congress about the U.S. military’s lack of a role in responding to the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya. Such a move would prevent the full chamber from taking up the nomination should the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approve Hagel to replace Panetta.
Graham said during the television interview he “absolutely” would block Hagel’s nomination. The South Carolina senator and a list of other GOP senators are concerned about Hagel’s past policy views and actions on issues such as the U.S.-Israel alliance, Iran’s nuclear-arms ambitions and shrinking the American nuclear arsenal.
In ongoing one-on-one meetings with senators, however, sources and lawmakers say Hagel has attempted to place his past comments in what he sees as proper context, or explain how his beliefs on some policies have evolved.
To be clear, Graham’s biggest national security gripe with the Obama administration continues to be its handling — before, during and after — the Benghazi attack.
“The one thing I’m not going to do is vote on a new secretary of defense until the old secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, who I like very much, testifies about what happened in Benghazi,” Graham said.
SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., appeared to pour a bit of cold water on Graham’s threat the next day, when he told reporters his panel intends to hold a hearing on the deadly attack in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.
“Well, we’re having a hearing on Benghazi anyway,” Levin said. “We don’t have a date but we’ve already committed to having it.”
Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the SASC is Jan. 31. Levin indicated it likely would take over a week to move the nomination to the Senate floor for debate and a final vote.
“We plan on having a [Benghazi] hearing [with Panetta] long before that event would occur anyway,” Levin said. “We don’t have a hearing date, but we have an inquiry for the date to set up a hearing on Benghazi.
“I committed long ago to a hearing on Benghazi, and we’re going to have a hearing on Benghazi” with Pentagon leaders, Levin said, who added he hopes that after the session “the issue [with Graham] will take care of itself.”
To that end, Graham told reporters just after Levin’s gaggle that he is “happy as a clam” to hear about the coming Benghazi session with Panetta.
Graham, who was out of town when outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before House and Senate panels for nearly six hours last week, said she “got away with murder, in my view.”
The SASC member took umbrage with Clinton’s admission during those hearings that she did not personally receive communications from the Benghazi diplomatic facility before the attack asking for increased security there.
“She said they had a clear-eyed view of the threats,” Graham said on Fox. “How could you have a clear-eyed view of the threats in Benghazi when you didn’t know about the ambassador’s cable coming back from Libya?”
Graham, who met with Hagel just before being intercepted by reporters, added to those concerns during his gaggle with reporters on Capitol Hill.
“Who are we getting: the guy today, or the guy who said [different] things then?” Graham said, who added twice that his qualms with the nominee are all about policy issues.
Hagel is “a good man who served his country in tough times during the Vietnam War,” Graham said. “I find him to be a good person. My question is not about his integrity. … We’re going to have a hearing of substance.”
Two other SASC Republican members, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona, told reporters Jan. 29 that they have yet to decide whether they will vote for or against Hagel. Both say they want to hear his full slate of answers during the confirmation hearing.