Chuck Hagel speaks during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 31. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
Chuck Hagel’s nomination to become U.S. defense secretary faces a new roadblock: An emerging Senate food fight over just how much financial data he should disclose.
GOP members are asking Hagel for even more information about his personal finances than he — like other Cabinet post nominees — already has disclosed.
One Republican Senate Armed Services Committee member went so far as to suggest in an interview with Defense News that the White House should be vetting potential replacements should Hagel’s nomination be derailed. A senior Democrat, however, charged Republicans with demanding an unprecedented amount of personal financial data — much more than other Cabinet secretary nominees must hand over.
More than two dozen upper chamber Republicans sent Hagel a pointed letter on Feb. 6 demanding he send them reams of additional data about his personal finances.
That letter followed a separate one, sent two days before his Jan. 31 Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, asking for the additional information. And at that hearing, several GOP senators demanded Hagel turn over the additional data. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Hagel to submit it by Feb. 4.
But that day “came and went, and you still did not respond,” the GOP senators wrote in the new letter to Hagel. “At the end of the day on Tuesday, Feb. 5, you submitted a short ‘response’ to our request. In that response, you explicitly declined to answer many of the questions asked of you.”
The letter describes the kinds of information the senators want, including a clear picture of “all compensation over $5,000 that you have received over the past five years.” It also asks for data about how much foreign funding the Atlantic Council brought in over the same span; Hagel was the chairman of the think tank when he was nominated.
The GOP senators also want Hagel to disclose the levels of foreign funding brought in over the past half decade by a number of firms to which he has ties, according to the letter, which was posted on a conservative website.
The lawmakers call Hagel’s alleged refusal to provide the additional data “deeply troubling.” The letter was signed by Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and several Republican Senate Armed Services Committee members, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, among others.
A close Hagel aide did not respond to a request for comment.
Ayotte told reporters Feb. 7 that the group is concerned about Hagel’s possible ties to foreign funding sources.
“There’s additional information about the speeches he has delivered and about his financial disclosures,” Ayotte said. “I’m not necessarily expecting to find anything. I just think these are fair questions and this is a very important position. We also know he has given a number of paid speeches.
“We’d like to know what he said in those paid speeches. It’s not like this is a nominee whose prior statements haven’t engendered controversy,” Ayotte said. “Many senators have had quite a few questions about his prior statements.”
The up-and-coming New Hampshire senator told Defense News the White House might want to consider a Plan B for defense secretary.
“There certainly are a number of people that would be qualified to serve in that position that would be less controversial,” Ayotte said. “There are many people who are qualified individuals, including within the Defense Department, that could serve without any kind of party line vote.”
When asked if she was referring to Ashton Carter, the deputy defense secretary President Barack Obama personally asked to remain in office, or Michele Flournoy, the widely respected former Pentagon policy chief, Ayotte merely smiled wide and said: “There are many.”
Both Carter and Flournoy, according to sources and reports, were on the Obama administration’s short list for the top civilian job at the Pentagon.
The lawmakers’ letter takes a harsh tone, saying Hagel’s alleged refusal to disclose the information shows either a lack of respect for the Senate Armed Services Committee or that he is hiding something that could undo his nomination.
“What we’re all looking for is did Sen. Hagel get on the speaking tour for ... anti-Israeli groups?” Graham told reporters. “What kinds of things did he say about Israel and other allies?” Without being able to view the additional requested information, Graham said he is unable to say whether this could be a death knell for the Hagel nomination. The panel’s top Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said the same.
“I’d have a hard time proceeding forward. I don’t think this should be a sticking,” Graham said. “I think he should just provide it and move on.”
The outspoken Palmetto State senator then reiterated his call from earlier this week that the White House “reconsider” Hagel’s nomination. “Sen. Hagel is a fine man,” Graham said. “I just don’t think he’s the right choice at this time. … I just don’t think he’s on top of things enough to give us the confidence we need.”
Enter Levin, who told reporters literally seconds after Graham’s comments that the new request “goes way beyond” the amount of personal financial data other Cabinet-level nominees are required to provide.
Levin was clearly irked by the new GOP request, but acknowledged they have a right to ask for more such information.
Asked if he was surprised when he learned of the Republican letter, the veteran chairman shot back simply: “No.”
“The ranking member [Inhofe] has said he will do anything he can do to stop the nomination,” Levin said. “I take this as one of the things he’s doing to try to stop the nomination.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Hagel’s longtime friend who last week roughed up the nominee during his confirmation hearing, would not rule out that the new request indeed goes beyond what Senate panels typically request from Cabinet nominees.
The panel must first approve the nomination before it can move to the Senate floor; Levin and others expect the committee will approve Hagel on a party line vote.
“We’ll have a vote as soon as possible,” Levin said of the committee’s once-delayed vote on Hagel. “We can’t not vote.”
GOP senators, including Graham, are playing coy about whether they will filibuster Hagel on the Senate floor. Graham says Republicans should filibuster only if the new request turns up “extraordinary” information; McCain opposes a filibuster.
But Republicans could attempt to force Obama into withdrawing the pick and submitting another nominee by using something known as a “hold” to put Hagel — and the U.S. military and defense business sector — into a kind of limbo.
Any senator can anonymously place a hold on any executive branch nominee for any reason.
Such a move is possible, Inhofe told Defense News Feb. 6. “That could happen,” Inhofe said with a grin. “I’m not sure who would be doing it.”