Embattled former senator Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) will face tough questions Thursday as the Senate considers his nomination to be President Obama’s next defense secretary.
Hagel will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he will confront some of his most outspoken Republican opponents, many of them former colleagues. Senator Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), the ranking member on the committee, has already announced his opposition to Hagel’s nomination.
“We are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues,” Inhofe said of Hagel earlier this month, citing his concern over the former senator’s positions on defense cuts, nuclear disarmament, Israel, and Iran.
Another committee member, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), has threatened to block Hagel’s nomination until current defense secretary Leon Panetta testifies on the deadly terrorist attack at a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Republican aides predict a contentious hearing in which Hagel will be forced to explain a number of things. “Expect fireworks,” said one GOP aide. “Obviously Hagel is a very controversial nominee, and he’ll have to answer some very tough questions.” The aide said to watch for Democrats to do some “backtracking” and “dancing around the issues” in an effort to defend Hagel.
All eyes will be on Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), the former ranking member on the committee who spearheaded the successful GOP effort to derail the nomination of United Nations ambassador Susan Rice to become secretary of state. Earlier this week, McCain declined to say whether he would support Hagel’s nomination, noting that Hagel did “not really” alleviate his concerns during a recent meeting.
Primary among those concerns is Hagel’s opposition to the successful 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which he denounced as “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” That is merely one of several positions Hagel can expect to be pressed on during Thursday’s hearing.
Perhaps more than any other issue, Hagel’s stance on Israel will be heavily scrutinized. Hagel has previously criticized the “Jewish lobby” as a group that “intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill, and once accused Israel of “keep[ing] Palestinians caged up like animals.” A number of Democrats have expressed concern about Hagel’s perceived antagonism toward the Jewish state. For example, Representative Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) said in late 2012 that Hagel appeared to have “some kind of endemic hostility” toward Israel. A group of 14 retired generals and admirals wrote in a letter opposing Hagel’s nomination that the former senator’s “abiding hostility towards Israel . . . would be detrimental to our national defense.”
Hagel has been a vocal opponent of sanctions on Iran, consistently arguing in favor of diplomatic engagement with adversarial regimes. In 2008, Democrats blamed then-senator Hagel for blocking a vote on an Iran-sanctions bill that enjoyed significant bipartisan support. Hagel has on multiple occasions opposed designating Iran-backed militant organizations as terrorist groups and has suggested that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons would be an acceptable outcome, something even President Obama has publicly ruled out. He has also received at least $28,000 in speaking fees from international companies tied to Iran.
Many Republicans are concerned that Hagel, who in 2011 described the U.S. Defense Department as “bloated” and something that “needs to be pared down,” does not share the views held by current defense secretary Leon Panetta that further cuts to the department would be “disastrous.” “Hagel’s stated positions are a recipe for American decline,” notes a GOP aide. “He would slash the defense budget at the same time he wants us to be more accommodating to our enemies.”
Hagel is on record supporting sharp reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and once urged his colleagues to pursue a “verifiable nuclear test ban,” shortly after a bill to establish one was defeated in the Senate. His role in the “Global Zero” Initiative, a commission that called for dramatically reducing the country’s warhead supply and ultimately sought the “elimination of all nuclear weapons,” has raised concerns on both sides of the aisle.
Democrats may question Hagel about comments he made in 1998 to explain his opposition to the nomination of James Hormel, who is openly gay, to become U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. “[Ambassadors] are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards,” Hagel said at the time. “And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.” He has since apologized and retracted his comments, but questions are likely to be raised about his positions on gay rights and perhaps a host of other social issues on which Democrats may find his views troubling.
Republican aides acknowledge that although Hagel’s nomination will be far more contentious than that of Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.), who on Tuesday was approved to become the next secretary of state by a vote of 94 to 3, he will most likely be confirmed.
Hagel’s nomination will be easily approved by the Democratic-led committee, after which it will proceed to the Senate floor for a vote. Republicans must then decide whether to attempt to block the nomination by mounting a filibuster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Tuesday it was “too early to predict” whether he would require a 60-vote threshold for Hagel’s confirmation.
As of Wednesday, only one Republican senator, Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), has committed to backing Hagel. Assuming that all Democrats vote yes, they would need only a handful of Republican votes, which should be fairly easy to obtain, to break a filibuster. However, a GOP aide said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Republicans filibuster anyway. “It wouldn’t be pointless,” the aide said. “Hagel is a controversial nominee, and it would send a message.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.