A key Senate panel voted along party lines Tuesday to recommend the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, sending his nomination to the full Senate despite opposition from Republican senators over his stances on Iran, Iraq and Israel.
The Senate Armed Services Committee vote puts Hagel’s ultimate confirmation in potential peril when it reaches the Senate floor as early as Wednesday. While he likely would gain the simple majority of 51 Senate votes needed, he’ll need to pick up at least five Republican votes to reach 60 if his opponents put up procedural barriers.
The committee voted 14-11 to approve President Barack Obama’s nomination of Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, with all Democrats on the panel backing him and all but one Republican opposing him. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana spoke at the hearing but didn’t vote.
“Despite efforts to portray him as outside 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,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan.
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Levin and other Democrats cited the introduction of Hagel at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing by former Sens. John Warner and Sam Nunn, two powerful senators who once led the armed services panel, with Warner going on to become defense secretary.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War hero, would be the first man of enlisted rank to head the Pentagon, succeeding Leon Panetta, a former California congressman who is popular among lawmakers from both parties.
The staunch opposition to him from Senate Republicans sets up an unusual scenario in which a former senator is assailed by senators from his own party, many of whom served with him before his January 2009 retirement.
“If Chuck Hagel is confirmed, it will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the newly elected Republican from Texas.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a military lawyer who’s the only member of the Senate to have seen active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, noted that he voted for Democratic Sen. John Kerry to become secretary of state despite policy differences, but he could not support Hagel.
“The reason I’m voting against Sen. Hagel is his record when it comes to Iran and Israel,” Graham said. “There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many things.”
Other Republican senators piled on, accusing Hagel of being soft on Iran and hard on Israel. They noted his past votes against Iranian sanctions and his previous criticism of Israeli settlement policies.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, praised Hagel as a fellow Vietnam War veteran and a man of integrity, and then lacerated him for having criticized President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war.
“We’re talking about thousands of young Americans who had their lives on the line in Iraq, and Sen. Hagel’s judgment was wrong and continues to be wrong,” McCain said.
In an odd twist, Democrats came to the Republican Hagel’s defense.
“President Obama was re-elected,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. “Some people might not like it, but he has selected (in Hagel) an honorable veteran who has served our country in various capacities, including this body.”
While Tuesday’s session wasn’t as contentious as Hagel’s marathon confirmation hearing two weeks ago, there was a series of testy exchanges among Republican Cruz and Democrats Levin, McCaskill and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.
Cruz criticized Hagel for refusing to answer Cruz’s and other Republicans’ questions about the sources of some of Hagel’s personal income after he left the Senate four years ago.
While admitting he had no proof, Cruz said Hagel may have spoken to organizations that support U.S. enemies.
“It may be that he spoke to radical or extreme or anti-Israel groups and received compensation,” Cruz said. “We don’t know.”
Cruz even said that one group Hagel addressed might have been backed by Saudi Arabia or North Korea, though again he cautioned he had no evidence.
That contention prompted a sharp rejoinder from Nelson.
“Sen. Cruz has gone over the line,” Nelson said. “He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee.”
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe’s repeated claims that Hagel was “cozy with Iran” because the Tehran government had welcomed his nomination by Obama also drew tense responses.
“I’ve got to tell you, Sen. Inhofe – be careful because you might have an organization that might endorse you that you find abhorrent,” McCaskill warned.