Chuck Hagel Ekes Out a Win

Eli Lake on why Republicans finally budged on the defense nominee.

The three-month battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination ended with a whimper on Tuesday. Seventy-one senators voted to end debate on the president’s pick for secretary for defense, paving the way for the former Republican senator to be confirmed on a largely party-line vote.

It was a victory of sorts for the White House, but Hagel will emerge wounded. “He has had to renounce every contrarian view that endeared him to the president in the first place,” one Republican senate aide said. “Very few people ever thought that you could actually prevent Hagel from being confirmed. In the realm of the possible this as close to a win as you can get.”

Nonetheless, the party of Lincoln lost in different ways on the Hagel vote. GOP leaders like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham had tried to use the vote as leverage to get the White House to release more information about the president’s whereabouts and activities on the night of the 9/11 anniversary attack in Benghazi, Libya. That only resulted in a terse letter from the White House counsel this month which essentially restated what was already in the public record about the administration’s contacts with Libyan leaders that evening and the next day.

On the floor of the Senate, Sen. James Inhofe, the Republican ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he called Leon Panetta, the man whose job Hagel will take, and urged him to stay in office. Panetta said he needed to spend time with his family, Inhofe reported.

The fight over Hagel began when his name was floated in December. At first the campaign against the nominee focused on comments Hagel had made regarding the pro-Israel lobby, his opposition to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and his view that the military’s budget was bloated.

Hagel’s hearing last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee was supposed to be an opportunity for the nominee to revise and extend these controversial remarks. But while his written testimony more closely aligned with the president’s policy, he wobbled under questioning. At one point the Democratic chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin, had to remind Hagel that the current administration’s policy was to oppose containment of Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite the wobble, Democratic lawmakers stuck with the president’s pick. Republicans then tried to stall the nomination by asking Hagel to disclose the entirety of his speeches as well as more details on his income from the many boards he serves on such as Chevron and Deutsche Bank, and those foreign governments that contributed money to the think tank where he was president, the Atlantic Council.

Hagel and the think tank made some disclosures, but overall the Republicans said they were not satisfied. Levin shot back that their requests were unprecedented and above and beyond the standard disclosures required for previous nominees for senior posts at the Pentagon. Republicans countered that exceptions like this had been made in the past for nominees to other senior posts, such as when Henry Kissinger was nominated to chair the 9/11 commission. (Kissinger opted to withdraw his nomination rather than disclose foreign sources of his income.)

On Tuesday, Democrats restated the argument that Hagel was endorsed by former secretaries of defense and state from both parties. They touted his war record as a non-commissioned officer in Vietnam, where he earned a purple heart. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, said, “The idea that four years into this administration that we are still playing a game of executive branch Swiss cheese, where there are still many vacancies, is no good.”

Republicans continued to hammer away. Roger Wicker, a Republican senator from Mississippi, called attention to Hagel’s remarks in his confirmation hearing that he would not have policy-making responsibilities. “This comment either demonstrates naiveté or a disturbing abdication of the defense secretary’s responsibilities,” he said.