Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel kicked off his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be the first enlisted man – a decorated, wounded Vietnam veteran – to lead the Department of Defense declaring his strong support for Israel and his willingness to use force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Hagel has come under fire from the Jewish right and other friends of Israel who feel he doesn’t meet the Likud loyalty test, but that has been effectively challenged by the endorsement of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best friends on Capitol Hill.
Schumer’s hechsher has been critical. It also reflects the growing influence and power of New York’s senior senator, who the New York Times called “the most influential Jewish member of the Senate,” and who, in a profile in today’s Washington Post, was called “the president’s right hand man on the Hill.”
Another very influential Jewish senator, Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, spoke in his opening statement about “troubling” comments by his former colleague about Israel, Hamas and Iran.
Like many senators, Hagel proved less adept at answering questions than asking them. He stumbled around explaining his views on Iran and had to clarify and reclarify some points that seemed at first to contradict administration policy.
He also tried to clarify comments he’d made in the past about pro-Israel activists, sounding at times like someone who shoots from the lip before thinking about what he’s saying. He told senators he regretted saying “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” when “I should have said pro-Israel lobby” and should have used the word “influence” and not “intimidate.” Moreover, “I should not have said ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid'” to describe some of the actions of Israel’s supporters and claimed he has come to “appreciate there are different views in these things.”
Opposition to Hagel among many of his former Republican colleagues has often sounded like it had less to do with his views on Israel, Iran and (especially) gays than the fact he was nominated by Barack Obama. That would be consistent with the declared policy of the Senate GOP leadership to try to block anything this president wants; they’ve even opposed some of their own legislation after the White House embraced it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has hinted Republicans may decide to block Hagel’s nomination by filibuster, thus requiring 60 votes instead of a simple majority. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has threatened to block the nomination by another parliamentary maneuver. Both threats suggest Republicans don’t have enough votes to defeat the former Nebraska senator on a straight up-or-down roll call.
Schumer earlier this month spent 90 minutes at the White House questioning Hagel on Israel, Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, gays in the military and other issues. The senator reported afterward that Hagel assured him of his strong support for Israel and that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, “including the use of force.”
New York’s junior senator, Kirstin Gillibrand (D), a member of the Armed Services Committee, has been more cautious. While expected to vote for confirmation she has said she will withhold her decision until after the hearings.
Hagel encountered intense badgering by McCain, once a close friend, over their differences on the Iraq war. When McCain first ran for president in 2000 he said he would be happy to have Hagel in his cabinet as secretary of defense, but the two Vietnam war veterans split later over the Iraq war surge, which Hagel opposed and McCain strongly backed. Judging by today’s hearing, it was more than an amiable disagreement.