Former Sen. Chuck Hagel appears to face an even steeper climb to become the next defense secretary after a rocky confirmation hearing Thursday in which his fellow Republicans blasted him for positions on issues and for what they called his willingness to alter positions “for the sake of political expediency.”
But he faced withering questions from Republican lawmakers and some pointed queries from Democrats who said he needs to square what he now says with his past words and stances on nuclear weapons, Israel and Iran.
His assurances and explanations over the past few weeks have won over Democrats, including the influential Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, who will shepherd the nomination through the process.
But few Republicans have been willing to publicly embrace Mr. Hagel, and key members of the party said the hearing didn’t rally any support.
“I don’t think he’s winning any hearts and minds,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, who already has said he opposes Mr. Hagel. “The challenge he has is really impossible to overcome, which is to reconcile his statements today with what he said and did 10, 15 years ago.”
The exact timetable on Mr. Hagel’s nomination is unclear, though Mr. Levin said he wants to move quickly.
He gave Mr. Hagel until Monday to answer some questions in writing and to provide copies of speeches that he has yet to disclose, and said he hopes for a committee vote late next week. That could set up a full Senate vote in mid-February.
Part of Mr. Hagel’s problem is the many battles he fought against his own party during his 12 years in the Senate — including refusing to back Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, in 2008.
“Were you right or wrong?” Mr. McCain demanded.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things,” Mr. Hagel said. “I think it’s far more complicated than that.”
He said he now thinks the surge was one factor that helped stabilize Iraq, but he still questioned whether it was necessary or whether that could have been achieved without the additional forces and the loss of 1,200 American troops.
He said he regretted using the phrase “Jewish lobby” and that “pro-Israel lobby” would have been better. Under intense questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, Mr. Hagel acknowledged that he couldn’t name anyone in the Senate he thought was intimidated, or any “dumb” decisions made because of influence from Israel.
On the issue of Iran, Mr. Hagel said his past opposition to sanctions wasn’t about coddling that nation’s rogue government. He said it was a question of whether that was the best strategy of tackling the problem at that time and of whether Congress should be trying to dictate foreign policy, which he said generally belongs to the executive branch.
“It was never a matter of differing objectives here; it was a matter of how best we can do it,” he said.
Mr. Hagel also ducked questions about whether the U.S. should take a more active role in Syria, saying he defers to the Obama administration’s stance.
But he repeatedly ran into his own long history with his former colleagues.
‘Out of the mainstream’
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, recalled trying to get Republicans to sign onto a letter in 2000 affirming solidarity with Israel, and Mr. Hagel was one of just four who refused to sign. In 2001, Mr. Hagel opposed extending harsh sanctions against Iran.
“This apparent willingness to walk back or alter his positions for the sake of political expediency on such important issues is deeply troubling and sends a concerning message to our allies and adversaries alike,” Mr. Inhofe said.
But it is telling that neither of Nebraska’s sitting senators, both of them Republicans, introduced him, which is the usual tradition for such hearings. Indeed, one of Nebraska’s two members, Sen. Deb Fischer, who sits on the committee, told Mr. Hagel that his views are “extreme.”
By contrast, Sen. John F. Kerry was introduced at his secretary of state confirmation hearing this week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow Massachusetts Democrat, by Mr. McCain, and by outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The hearing opened with a gay-rights protester standing in the middle of the hearing room, quietly asking whether Mr. Hagel would commit to grant equal rights to spouses of gay troops.
It underscored some of the thorny social issues facing the next defense secretary in a Pentagon undergoing major changes, including allowing women to serve in combat roles and allowing acknowledged gays to serve.
In a 111-page questionnaire submitted to the committee, Mr. Hagel said he supports the Law of the Sea Treaty; will see through the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prohibited gays from serving openly in the military; and will support all of the Obama administration’s policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, the size and scope of the military, missile defense, and a host of other issues.
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