After two hours of sometimes contentious discussion, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted along party lines, with 14 ayes and 11 nays (and one missing vote), to report Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense chief to the full Senate. The hearing—billed by the committee as a "discussion"—before the vote struck tones similar to the marathon eight-hour hearing, but a few Democrats fought back against lines of attack pushed by Republican opponents of Barack Obama's pick to head the Defense Department. Democratic Chairman Carl Levin repeatedly said the committee operated in a "bi-partisan" manner, but that belied the acrimony at the hearing—and perhaps the procedural hurdles Republicans are planning to prevent a Senate vote later this week.
"Some members of the committee strongly oppose President Obama's foreign policies," Levin said at the top of the hearing, "But regardless how we may feel about the president's policies, our vote on senator Hagel's nomination will not change those policies." Republicans, though, kept Hagel firmly in their sights, maintaining, for example, that Hagel's views are "out of the mainstream" despite an impressive list of bi-partisan top former security officials. The ranking Republican Jim Inhofe repeatedly invoked—as he did when questioning Hagel several weeks ago—a purported endorsement of the appointment by the Iranian government. “He’s endorsed by them,” Inhofe said. “You can’t get any cozier than that.” (As Matt Duss has noted, the attack stems from a statement from Iran's foreign ministry spokesman that the government hoped for "practical changes" in U.S. policy toward Iran.) Later, the Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill warned Inhofe to "be careful": “What if some horrible organization said tomorrow that you were the best guy that they knew?”
The most remarkable exchange came when Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who's led the campaign to expose "foreign funding" Hagel purportedly received, implied that the nominee had not been forthcoming, suggesting that a "conflict of interst" may lurk and even that Hagel even may have taken money from North Korea, an enemy of the U.S. But Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, fired back: “This Senator feels like that Senator Cruz has gone over the line,“ Nelson said. "He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee." The exchange prompted John McCain, who voted against passing the nomination to the full Senate, to jump in and defend his former friend, Hagel: "Senator Hagel is an honorable man. He has served his country and no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity." Cruz, on the defensive, replied that he hadn't "impugned [Hagel's] character."Seemingly turned off by his colleague's behavior aside, McCain might hold the key to allowing a Senate vote on Hagel's nomination: he's dancing a delicate line, telling reporters that while he opposes a filibuster of the nomination, he's willing to block cloture—a procedural move to hold the actual vote—until the Obama administration releases information about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 last year. This puts McCain in a camp with his frequent Republican ally Lindsey Graham, who's said he'll block the nomination for the same reasons, by any means possible. McCain's conversion might give hope to those who plan on delaying the vote. With 55 Democrats and allied independents, Hagel would almost certainly be confirmed by the upper chamber—if Republicans let them vote.