Chuck Hagel is almost undoubtedly going to be the next secretary of defense. Senate GOP sources say that precious little stands in his way, despite his lackluster performance at his hearing and his deep trove of controversial statements and votes.
But not all of his opponents have given up hope, and their last-ditch efforts could result in a nail-biter of a confirmation. “If you buy more time, more stuff is bound to come out,” says a Republican insider. “The more time we have, the better.”
Most Republicans, however, remain pessimistic. “You can delay it, but you can’t stop it,” says a GOP aide close to the proceedings. “The only way to stop the nomination would be a filibuster, and there’s been a real hesitancy for that.”
The lone remaining hope for Hagel critics is the rumor that Democrats may be bluffing about having 60 votes locked. “There will be a vote, and it’s just a question of whether or not somebody objects to the motion to proceed, and we’ll see if they’re going to have a 60-vote threshold,” says Brian Phillips, spokesman for Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah). “And I think that’s likely after Hagel’s performance, but maybe I was reading Twitter too much.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee, which returns to work on Thursday, is expected to vote on Hagel’s nomination soon. If the votes aren’t there, GOP sources say, Democrats will push to postpone the vote for a few days. But Democrats aren’t breaking, the sources add, either in the cloakroom or in public.
One of Hagel’s fiercest opponents, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, has been mentioned by several Republican sources as the potential point man for any anti-Hagel maneuvers, but Cruz has kept mum about his plans, as has Senator John Cornyn of Texas, another prominent Hagel critic.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), for his part, has urged President Obama to “reconsider” Hagel’s nomination, but he says he filibusters “very reluctantly.” Graham’s ally, Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), has said he will not back a filibuster.
As Hagel waits for a final floor vote, several outside groups working against Hagel are urging Republicans to block the nominee from receiving the necessary 60 cloture votes before his confirmation vote, but even that effort hangs on a thin reed.
The Nebraskan’s subpar hearing performance did put wind in the proverbial sails of the myriad groups dedicated to thwarting his efforts, but those efforts have stalled as Republican senators have ceased their full-throated public campaign against Hagel.
So, for the moment, the groups fighting Hagel’s nomination are using a variety of other tactics. Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition says that board members of his group have been calling senators with whom they have personal relationships.
And they’re not the only group making calls. The much-derided Hagel hearing has given new energy to anumber of opposition groups, including Americans for a Stronger Defense. Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the group, says he was floored by the Nebraskan’s poor performance.
“I can’t recall a hearing for a nominee for any minor administrative position, nevermind a major position like Secretary of Defense, going as poorly as Chuck Hagel’s hearing did,” he says. “It was an epic failure, essentially one for the record books.”
Michael Goldfarb of the Emergency Committee for Israel says his group’s primary aim has been to emphasize Hagel’s problematic record in the Senate, including his opposition to unilateral sanctions on Iran and references to the so-called Jewish lobby.
But Hagel’s hearing, though poor, has not crippled his candidacy. Vocal support from prominent Democrats will probably guarantee him the spot at the Pentagon.
“Once Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer gave their blessing, we were basically screwed, because that gave cover to any of the Democrats that had concerns about Israel,” says another Republican aide familiar with the proceedings. “I think there’s no stopping this train now.”
“There was a lot of chatter — particularly on the otherside — that he really tanked; but the chatter was, ‘He tanked but he’ll still get confirmed,’” the source adds.
It was no surprise, then, on Tuesday, when White House press secretary Jay Carney predicted that Hagel will soon be confirmed. That echoed the buzz not only among Senate Democrats, but also among Senate Republicans.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.