The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday approved the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become U.S. defense secretary, with no Republicans voting in favor of their former GOP colleague.
The 14-11-1 party-line vote came at the end of a contentious meeting during which Republican members repeatedly slammed Hagel in a manner reminiscent of his now-infamous confirmation hearing.
All 14 SASC Democrats voted to send the nomination to the full Senate.
Eleven of the 12 Republicans voted no, setting up a showdown possibly as soon as this week on the Senate floor. (Sen. David Vitter, R-La., did not vote.)
The meeting was dominated by Republican members bringing up many of the same issues on which they peppered Hagel with aggressive questions during a raucous Jan. 31 confirmation hearing.
The meeting’s most dramatic moments came when freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party Republican from Texas, alleged Hagel has taken funds from extremist groups and U.S. foes like North Korea. Cruz also questioned whether Hagel might have taken funds from weapons manufacturers.
All of those, if true, could create conflicts of interest that could spell trouble for Hagel’s nomination. Importantly, Cruz admitted he possesses no evidence that Hagel obtained funds from any foreign sources, especially ones from North Korea.
In a civil but tense response, typically docile Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Cruz he had “gone over the line” and “impugned” Hagel’s patriotism and character. Nelson criticized Cruz for alleging the nominee is guilty of “cozying up to Iran.” (Oddly, Cruz also said a Defense Secretary Hagel would make war with Iran more likely, despite any alleged cozying.)
SASC Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., came to Cruz’s defense, repeating a GOP line about a senior Iranian official recently welcoming Hagel’s nomination.
“You can’t get any cozier than that,” Inhofe said.
In the meeting’s lone bipartisan moment, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime Hagel friend despite his “no” vote, crossed the aisle to defend Hagel. McCain called him an honorable man, saying “no one should impugn” Hagel’s patriotism.
Several GOP members, as they did last month, questioned Hagel’s belief in the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the world is too dangerous for Hagel to become defense secretary, saying he lacks the confidence and strength needed for the job.
SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., read a lengthy opening statement that featured a clinical defense of the nominee. Levin said Hagel, during his confirmation hearing, took “clear and firm” positions that “Iran poses a significant threat to the United States” and that he is “fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
What’s more, Levin said Hagel is “a strong supporter of Israel,” and has stated he feels Washington has “a special relationship with Israel.”
Levin told reporters he expects Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., likely will file a cloture motion on Hagel’s nomination sometime Wednesday. Levin told reporters that Senate rules stipulate it requires 60 votes to end debate on the chamber floor.
But some SASC Republicans intend to press for a 60-vote threshold on the eventual vote on the nomination.
“We are planning a 60-vote threshold” on the chamber floor later this week, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense News on Tuesday morning.
He doubled down on that statement following the afternoon vote.
“I could read off 10 different names of [past nominees] who have required a 60-vote margin,” Inhofe told reporters. “Harry Reid has required that in the past. It’s surprising to me that people would make an issue out of that. We should have a 60-vote margin on these issues when there are strong feelings.”
Inhofe said “we shouldn’t use the word ‘filibuster,’” even though some of his GOP mates have threatened just that to derail Hagel.
To that end, one senior GOP senator told Defense News he is sure “there won’t be a serious filibuster effort.”
Five Republicans must twice vote with Democrats, once to end debate and once to approve Hagel’s nomination.
The Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, told Defense News about an hour before the SASC vote that “I’m optimistic that we can overcome a filibuster … if it happens.”