The top Republican on the panel that will weigh whether Chuck Hagel should be confirmed as defense secretary came out against him hours after President Barack Obama’s spokesman said the nomination was gaining momentum.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement yesterday that he told Hagel they are “too philosophically opposed.” Among their differences, Inhofe said, is that Hagel doesn’t share his depth of concern about the effects of looming defense spending cuts.
The Senate committee will hold the confirmation hearing on Jan. 31, the panel said today in an e-mailed statement. More senators are taking sides over Hagel as the former Republican senator from Nebraska begins a push to contact every member. Opposition centers on whether he’s tough enough on Iran and a strong enough supporter of Israel.
Earlier yesterday, White House press secretary Jay Carney highlighted support for Hagel from two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California, who had withheld their backing until Hagel gave them assurances about his positions on policy toward Israel and Iran.
“We believe that represents momentum behind Senator Hagel’s nomination, and we look forward to the confirmation proceedings continuing,” Carney told reporters.
Hagel, 66, came under attack from Republicans, including Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, even before Obama announced the choice on Jan. 7. Critics have also cited a comment Hagel once made about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democratic leader, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that he made his decision after meeting with Hagel the previous day for almost 90 minutes. The senator said he received assurances that Hagel “would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force” and that he regrets the comment about the “Jewish lobby.”
“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer said. “I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
Backing from Schumer, a prominent supporter of Israel, may bring other uncommitted senators in both parties over to Hagel’s side, said Jim Manley, a former Democratic aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“It takes one of the most potent arguments away from some of Hagel’s opponents and puts him another step further along the path to getting confirmed,” Manley, who is now a senior director at the Washington-based government relations firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates, said in an interview.
A poll released yesterday found 42 percent of U.S. adults support Hagel, while 24 percent oppose him. One-third of those surveyed had no opinion, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll. The Jan. 10-13 survey of 1,001 adults had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.
Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran chosen by Obama to replace departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, has set out to contact all 100 members of the Senate in a push to win confirmation. He plans to hold dozens of such meetings in advance of hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to an adviser who asked not to be identified describing the confirmation tactics.
Boxer said Jan. 14 that she would back Hagel after receiving assurances from him in a letter on his positions regarding Mideast issues.
In the letter, Hagel, who has opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran in the past, said he supports Obama’s measures that are being “applied in concert with allies and partners.”
“I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions, both multilateral and unilateral, may be necessary and I will support the president,” Hagel wrote.
He said he has long been a supporter of Israel’s right to self-defense, and pointed to past remarks in which he has condemned Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. He also highlighted a July 2006 speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington in which he called the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship “a special and historic one.”
Hagel said his use of the phrase “Jewish lobby” to refer to pro-Israel groups in Washington was a “very poor choice of words” and is a remark he made in only one interview.
On gay rights, Hagel told Boxer he supports the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that had banned people who are openly gay from serving. He said he would do “everything possible” to ensure that equal benefits are allowed for the families of all service members.
Some gay-rights groups have criticized Hagel for questioning in 1998 whether an “openly, aggressively gay” person such as James Hormel -- a nominee to be a U.S. ambassador -- could properly represent the U.S. abroad.
President Bill Clinton later named Hormel ambassador to Luxembourg when the Senate was in recess because of opposition to making him an envoy. Hagel apologized for the remarks last month.
On a conference call with reporters yesterday, Boxer said some Senate Democrats remain concerned about Hagel’s stance on gay-rights issues. She predicted he will overcome those doubts, giving him a shot at the support of all 55 Senate votes controlled by Democrats.
“I do honestly believe their questions will be answered and they will come aboard,” Boxer said.
If so, Hagel would need support from only five of the 45 Republicans to get the 60 votes that would be required to push through the nomination should opponents seek to delay action. Otherwise, he would need 51 “yes” votes.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, stopped short of endorsing Hagel after meeting with him for 90 minutes yesterday while saying that he shared her opposition to automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, according to a statement released by her office.
“Hagel reiterated Secretary Panetta’s position that such meat-axe cuts would be disastrous and catastrophic to our national security and economy,” Collins said, adding that she would withhold judgment on the nomination until after confirmation hearings are held.
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