WASHINGTON | Bruised and battered, Chuck Hagel emerged from his grueling confirmation hearing with solid Democratic support for his nomination to be President Barack Obama’s next defense secretary and relentless opposition from Republicans who repeatedly challenged their former GOP colleague.
Mathematically, Hagel has the edge as he looks to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as the nation’s 24th Pentagon chief. Democrats hold a 14-12 advantage on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the panel could vote as early as next Thursday, contingent on Hagel’s prompt response on some lingering questions.
Levin expressed optimism about Hagel’s prospects and praised his performance in nearly eight hours of testimony Thursday.
“I think his answers were honest and forthright and he did very well,” Levin told reporters. “I hope that there will be some, who maybe were skeptical but who are undecided before this hearing, will maybe now look at him in a more favorable light. But I think there are a whole lot of folks who basically decided before the hearing that they were going to vote against him.”
Unclear is whether Republicans will try to block the nomination of a Cabinet choice, especially when they have argued — when a Republican occupied the White House — that presidents should have their nominees.
Hagel struggled at times as GOP senators challenged him on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons, repeatedly pressing him on past statements, votes and even letters he declined to sign. Refusing to show any frustration or anger, Hagel defended his record.
The former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska described his views as mainstream and closely aligned with those of Obama, the Democrat who nominated him. But several GOP members of the committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., called his ideas “extreme” and “far to the left” of Obama.
Hagel said he believes America “must engage — not retreat — in the world” and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.
He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out using military force.
“I think we’re always on higher ground in every way — international law, domestic law, people of the world, people of the region to be with us on this — if we have … gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible, peaceful way, rather than going to war,” he said.
He pushed back on the notion — first raised by one of his harshest Republican critics, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma — that he favors a policy of appeasement.
“I think engagement is clearly in our interest,” Hagel told Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who denounced the idea of negotiating with a “terrorist state.”
“That’s not negotiation,” Hagel said. “Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender.”
The nominee’s fiercest exchange came with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a fellow Vietnam veteran and onetime close friend. Politics and Hagel’s evolving opposition to the Iraq war caused a split between the two men that was on full display.
McCain suggested that Hagel and his critics were not quibbling over small matters.
“They are not reasonable people disagreeing; they are fundamental disagreements. Our concerns pertain to the quality of your professional judgment and your worldview on critical areas of national security,” he said.
McCain pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to President George W. Bush’s decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan.
“Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?” McCain asked.
“I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out,” Hagel said as the two men talked over each other.
“The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge,” McCain insisted.
Unable to elicit a simple response, McCain said the record should show that Hagel refused to answer. And he made it clear that he would have the final word — with his vote, which he said would be influenced by Hagel’s refusal to answer yes or no.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it,” he said.
Responding to criticism from outside GOP-leaning groups, Hagel repeated his regrets about using the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to pro-Israel groups. He said he should have used another term and should not have said those groups have intimidated members of the Senate into favoring actions contrary to U.S. interests.
“I’m sorry and I regret it,” Hagel said. “On the use of ‘intimidation,’ I should have used ‘influence,’ I think would have been more appropriate.”
At one point, Hagel mistakenly said the Obama policy toward Iran is “containment” even though the former senator has said all options, including military force, should be on the table. He was handed a note and corrected himself.
Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in Obama’s Cabinet, the first Vietnam veteran to be defense secretary and the first enlisted man to take the post.