WASHINGTON - In a jam-packed Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room, committee members on Tuesday wrangled for more than two and a half hours over the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, finally endorsing him by a 14-to-11 margin.
The vote, which was fiercely debated along party lines in an open meeting, was contentious and bitter at times. And it often revolved around whether Hagel, based on his past statements, held views far outside the mainstream, bipartisan views of Congress and the president on national security issues.
His GOP detractors continued to hammer on Hagel for his past controversial comments, maintaining that they illustrate the former Nebraska senator’s reluctance to adopt harsh sanctions or take decisive unilateral action against Iran in its march toward nuclear weapons and his lack of commitment to Israel. They also cited his “disappointing” and “less than stellar performance" in his eight-hour nomination hearing before the committee two weeks ago, in which Hagel misstated the President’s policy toward containment against Iran and at times, refused to give “clear, direct answers," they said.
Ranking committee member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., argued that appointing Hagel to the top defense position would only encourage Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. He also questioned Hagel’s commitment to being tough on terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, pointing out that “the Iranian government has endorsed him.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others stood by demands that Hagel should have provided more financial disclosure information, detailing contributions he’s received from entities with foreign affiliations, despite the fact that committee chairman, Carl Levin, R-Mich., had earlier dismissed them, saying they went “far beyond” what had been required by past nominees.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fl., countered that recent GOP demands and accusations had "crossed a line” in that they “had impugned Hagel." He hadn't seen this level of character attack in his years on the committee, he said.
Nelson said that criticisms by Cruz, Inhofe and Sen. Kelly Ayotte had implied that Hagel "had not been truthful” and “had been cozy with Iran.” To which Inhofe responded, “well, he’s endorsed by (Iran), you can’t get any cozier than that,” eliciting a few gasps from the audience.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., then warned Inhofe to “be careful with the inferences…you might have an organization that endorses you that you find abhorrent. Would I then have the right to say, you are cozy with them?"
After a number of heated exchanges, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said, “let me see if I can reel this back - this is not my idea of a good time.”
And then he went on to detail his own objections to Hagel’s nomination, namely that Hagel “made a career out of taking contrary positions” to what was the bipartisan, national security consensus on national security issues.
“He's not the right man for the job ... We can do better, and we need to do better,” Wicker said.
Levin responded that “despite efforts to portray him ‘outside of the mainstream’ of American foreign policy, Sen. Hagel has received broad support from a wide array of senior statesmen and defense and foreign policy organizations.” They include five former Defense secretaries, several secretaries of State, ambassadors and others, appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Democrats, including Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, also cited Hagel’s history as a decorated war veteran, his continuing advocacy on behalf of veterans, his resume, and the fact that he would be the first secretary who spent his military career as an enlisted man as proof of his qualifications for the job.
They also defended Hagel’s courage in “speaking his mind,” as evidence of his commitment to give his frank, honest opinions to the president and lawmakers - and the fact he has admitted that he was "wrong" in some statements, including controversial comments about the "Jewish lobby."
Hagel's commitment to troops and veterans was cited as the one of his strongest qualifications for the job. His nomination will now go up for a vote for confirmation by the full Senate.
“I want our secretary of Defense to be worrying about harm to our men and women in uniform, and I don’t think any of us have any doubt, that when he goes to sleep at night, that would be his overriding concern,” Kaine said.