In the nation’s capital, observers expect former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) to win his battle for confirmation in the Senate and become Secretary of Defense.
But they also say the battle is proving more difficult than anyone expected. Moreover, at least a few Hagel supporters may be wondering now if the nomination was a good idea.
Hagel, 66, is the Vietnam combat veteran named by the Obama Administration to replace Leon Panetta. Hagel will get the top Pentagon job, pundits say, despite invocation of cloture by conservative Republicans and a “hold” on his nomination by the vociferous Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Still, the administration is frustrated that the delay over Hagel in the Senate, coupled with possible opposition to the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, could cause what White House chief of staff Denis McDonough calls “a grave concern” over national security.
Although it isn’t the reason for the delay, Hagel supporters and detractors alike acknowledged being dumbfounded by what Walter Pincus in the Washington Post called Hagel’s “lackluster performance” during his Capitol Hill testimony.
Passive, Not Aggressive
“Small wonder they’re taking a second look at this,” said retired Air Force Col. Martin Chaffin, a Manassas, Va., author and analyst. “Hagel came to the day-long hearing [on January 31] unprepared. He was passive when he should have been aggressive. When he was accused of being soft on Iran, or not a staunch enough supporter of Israel, he should have had answers ready and he didn’t.”
David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times that because the nominee didn’t appear properly briefed on administration policy, Hagel sent “what many inside the administration fear has been an inconsistent and confusing message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, about whether the Obama Administration would, if there was no other option, take military measures to prevent Iran from possessing a [nuclear] weapon.” It was a “stumbling performance,” Sanger wrote, and an administration official called it “somewhere between baffling and incomprehensible.”
Hagel had to be corrected by an aide when he referred to the administration’s policy toward Iran: “By the way, I’ve just been handed a note that I misspoke [when I] said I supported the president’s position on containment,” Hagel told senators. “If I said that, I meant to say that obviously – on his position on containment – we don’t have a position on containment.”
The administration is up against two obstacles unique to the 100-member Senate. The first is a cloture rule that permits members of the upper house to require 60 votes rather than a simple 51-vote majority for many actions. The second is a procedural rule that permits a single senator — in this case, Graham — to hold up action on a nomination. Graham has repeatedly linked the Hagel appointment to Republican questions over the administration’s actions during the September 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Hagel was not in public office at the time.
Two weeks after the initial confirmation hearing, on Feb. 14, Republicans blocked an ambitious effort by Democrats led by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev) that was aimed at attaining the 60-vote threshold needed to end debate and move to a final vote on the Senate floor. The count was 58-40. If the nomination could be gotten out of committee and put before the full Senate, a simple 51-vote majority would be required to confirm Hagel – an easy hurdle for the Democratic majority, which has a handful of Republican supporters.
Graham, a former Air Force Reserve colonel and judge advocate whose own positions have shifted sharply to the right in recent years, used what’s called senatorial privilege to place a temporary block on the nomination, but says that when deliberations resume he won’t stand in Hagel’s way.
Observers expect the nomination to reach the Senate floor and receive Senate approval on or after Feb. 26.
That won’t keep Hagel out of the limelight for long. In Washington, some wonder if Hagel’s weak responses to questions about his record, management skills and temperament may signal that he isn’t ready to take charge of one of the world’s largest bureaucracies.
Wrote Pincus: “The people Hagel must worry about are the men and women of the Defense Department for whom the hearing was a first look at their next boss in action. It wasn’t a promising start.”
That’s true. But the next Secretary of Defense will also need to be in tune with administration policy and in constant touch with Congress. Chuck Hagel almost certainly will handle all these things well once he gets settled, but many in the nation’s capital wish he’d gotten off to a better start.