The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary on a party-line vote, advancing the first confirmation showdown of President Barack Obama’s second term to the full Senate.
The 14-11 vote in the Democratic-led committee underscored continued Republican resistance to Obama’s choice of Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War veteran, to replace the retiring Leon Panetta as the Pentagon’s leader.
While Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who serves on the committee, has threatened to put a “hold” on the nomination -- a tradition that lets any senator delay action -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will seek final approval on the floor this week, before a weeklong congressional break.
“Senator Reid said we’ll have the vote Wednesday or Thursday, and that is the plan, holds or no holds,” Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for the Nevada Democrat, said today in an e-mail.
Obama’s choice of Hagel, 66, has been criticized by Republicans over his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, his comments about the influence of what he once called “the Jewish lobby,” and his opposition to the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Hagel faced an onslaught of criticisms from Republicans at his confirmation hearing two weeks ago.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services panel, has predicted all 55 senators who vote with Democrats will back Hagel on the Senate floor, and at least five Republicans have indicated they would provide the additional votes needed to block a threatened filibuster.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the panel, has hinted at a filibuster, saying he believes 60 votes should be required to confirm Hagel. Further complicating the process, Graham’s threat to put a hold on the nomination is based on his demand that Obama explain what he did personally to encourage military action during the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham also said today that Hagel’s record included “a series of votes and statements that paint an unusually disturbing picture.”
“He’s in a league of his own, guys,” with votes that show he isn’t tough enough on matters such as confronting Iran on its nuclear program, Graham said. There’s “an edge about him that leaves me very unnerved” about his selection “at a time when the world is on fire.”
Levin said Hagel had explained or apologized for some of his more provocative past statements.
“Despite efforts of some to portray him as ‘outside the mainstream’ of American foreign policy, Senator Hagel has received broad support from a wide array of senior statesmen and defense and foreign policy organizations,” Levin said.
While Hagel’s nomination faces more than “minor snags,” his confirmation appears “relatively safe,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.
Republicans, who lost a bid to regain control of the Senate in the November election, may not want to be too obstructionist over Obama’s pick for a top national security post, Zelizer said today in an interview.
“Republicans are in a really awkward position to be filibustering a Republican war veteran,” Zelizer said.
Two Republican senators — Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — have said they will support Hagel’s nomination. Others who oppose him, including John McCain of Arizona and Roy Blunt of Missouri, said they would nevertheless vote to end any filibuster of the selection.
By tradition, the party outside the White House doesn’t subject Cabinet-level positions to a filibuster threat.
In only two cases has a cabinet nominee required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor, according to Betty Coed, associate Senate historian. They were President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 pick for Commerce Secretary, C. William Verity, and President George W. Bush’s 2006 choice of Dirk Kempthorne to be Interior Secretary. Both overcame the higher vote threshold and were confirmed.
Hagel initially faced the prospect of bipartisan opposition after Obama announced the former two-term senator was his Pentagon pick on Jan. 7. In a breakthrough for Hagel, he gained the endorsement of Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s No. 3 Democratic leader, on Jan. 15. Schumer said Hagel had assuaged his concerns about the nominee’s positions on Israel and Iran during a 90-minute meeting at the White House.
Opposition to Hagel, including ads on cable television, have been led by Republicans outside Congress such as William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.
Kristol and McCain are among Republicans who favor a more aggressive U.S. military stance abroad and broke with Hagel when he opposed the surge in Iraq during President George W. Bush’s administration. Bush’s vice president, Richard Cheney, predicted Hagel will be a rubber stamp for Obama’s defense policies.
“My guess is, if you look at what the president’s motives are for picking Chuck Hagel, I think he wants a Republican to go be the foil, if you will, for what he wants to do to the Defense Department, which is, I think, do serious, serious damage to our military capabilities,” Cheney said in an interview that aired on “CBS This Morning” today. “It looks to me that the president has made choices, in part, based on people who won’t argue with him.”
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