Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposed then-Sen. John Kerry's nomination for secretary of state and led tough questioning of former Sen. Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing for defense secretary. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. James Inhofe’s politically charged opening act as the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican shows the panel’s self-touted bipartisanship is eroding as GOP members embrace an ideological revival.
The Oklahoma Republican inherited the SASC ranking member post from the Senate’s self-described GOP maverick, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Where McCain frequently took stances geared at advancing his own agenda, Inhofe’s initial moves show he intends to advance Senate Republican leaders’ agenda — and go after President Barack Obama.
Inhofe used his new position to oppose the nomination of his then-Senate colleague, John Kerry, for secretary of state. A big part of Inhofe’s opposition was based on an ideological GOP cornerstone: rejecting the idea of global warming.
“I expect Kerry will spend a significant amount of his time supporting the United Nations with a revived Kyoto Treaty to combat climate change, which would be devastating to every facet of our economy,” Inhofe said in a statement Jan. 29, shortly after he voted “no” on Kerry’s nomination.
In fact, the Oklahoman joined two conservative Texans, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, as the only members who voted against Kerry’s nomination. That vote and the trio’s similar comments on Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, suggest an aggressive faction is forming on national defense and foreign policy issues.
Inhofe led the charge while SASC Republicans relentlessly hammered Hagel during the panel’s now-infamous Jan. 31 confirmation hearing.
Inhofe told Hagel the nominee’s long policy record “is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream.” Inhofe wasn’t finished, saying Hagel is too “willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”
At one point, Inhofe broke with the Republican strategy of discrediting and disqualifying Hagel to declare, “we are very good friends.” But moments later, Inhofe was back on script as the kind of conservative ideological warrior that is now the norm on Capitol Hill.
“Why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?” he asked Hagel, drawing several gasps from a standing-room audience.
“Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee are becoming more ideological, just like everywhere else,” said Washington observer and Lexington Institute chief operating officer Loren Thompson. “However, if they push budget-cutting too hard, they could get cross-wise with the military and alienate home-state voters who depend on Pentagon programs.”
Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps three-star general and former SASC staff director under former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, noticed a different tone from the panel. The Republican members’ exhibited newfound “ideological absolutism,” he said, adding that GOP senators “were almost holding [Hagel] to a standard that’s almost biblical.”
Longtime SASC member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sensed Inhofe’s move into the ranking member’s chair suggested a change for a panel fond of extolling its tradition of cross-aisle cooperation.
“In the six years I’ve served on the committee, I have served under [former Sen. John] Warner as a ranking Republican member and [McCain] as a ranking Republican member. And I’ve got to tell you there has never been a time that I didn’t sense that we all agreed our work [should be] on behalf of our nation in terms of protecting our country and defending our country, that it was a bipartisan effort,” McCaskill said.
She paused briefly before adding, in a slower cadence, “I believe very strongly that this committee needs to be bipartisan, and I hope the new ranking member holds the same regard for that as Sen. McCain and Sen. Warner did, because at all times, I felt they were respectful and willing to listen to our disagreements. And I’m hopeful that that will continue.”
One of the most poignant signs of the SASC’s political shift came during the Jan. 31 hearing. But it happened well into the eighth and final hour, out of the view of the C-SPAN cameras.
Inhofe was leaving the Dirksen Office Building chamber as the session was wrapping up. He was headed for the door, but paused. Fittingly, Inhofe pivoted toward his right.
Waiting was a smiling Cruz, who administered some of the epic hearing’s most dramatic and bruising questioning of Hagel. Some Democratic — and even a few Republican-leaning — sources would later say Cruz’s tactics were out of bounds.
Cruz had a large video screen moved into the hearing chamber, and on it he played a clip of a 2009 appearance Hagel made on a call-in program on the Al-Jazeera television network.
“[A] caller suggests that the nation of Israel has committed war crimes, and your response to that was not to dispute that characterization, but, indeed, to describe what he said as, quote, ‘Well, I think that’s exactly right,’” a loud and angry Cruz shouted at Hagel.
“I would suggest that a suggestion that Israel has committed war crimes is particularly offensive given that the Jewish people suffered under the most horrific war crimes in the Holocaust,” an indignant Cruz said, still nearly shouting. “And I would also suggest that for the secretary of defense or a prospective [U.S.] secretary of defense not to take issue with that claim is highly troubling.”
(SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., would later charge Cruz had taken Hagel’s reply to a caller out of context. Levin contended Hagel was responding to another part of the caller’s comments.)
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was embarrassed by his GOP colleagues’ harsh interrogation tactics.
“I feel like I want to apologize for some of the tone and demeanor today,” Manchin told Hagel minutes after Cruz’s time had expired.
But Inhofe did not seem to object. During a brief exchange, the Senate veteran and the firebrand freshman smiled several times. As Inhofe turned to leave, Cruz sat alone. He smiled.