The Senate Armed Services Committee voted Tuesday along party lines to recommend the nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense, letting their partisan feelings surface in a tense two-hour meeting that foreshadows a bitter fight in the full chamber.
All 14 Democrats on the committee supported Mr. Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam War veteran who would become the first former enlisted man to reach the top civilian post at the Pentagon. All 11 Republicans present voted against his confirmation, and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana was recorded as absent without providing any instructions on his vote after complaining that the nomination was being rushed through the Senate.
Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he expects Mr. Hagel to eventually be confirmed by the full Senate. He plans to hold a vote this week before the body leaves Washington for a weeklong vacation, although Republican senators have signaled that President Obama’s pick will continue to face obstacles from their side of the aisle.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said Mr. Hagel should be confirmed in light of support from former secretaries of defense and Mr. Hagel’s apologies for controversial remarks on foreign policy and about an openly gay ambassador 15 years ago. Time is of the essence in confirming a new Pentagon chief, Mr. Levin added, amid looming budget cuts targeting the Department of Defense and recent nuclear tests by North Korea.
“The president needs to have a secretary of defense in whom he has trust,” Mr. Levin said.
In short speeches that alternated between the Democratic and Republican sides of a long table, committee members from both parties praised Mr. Hagel’s military career — but Republican members inevitably pivoted toward biting criticism of the Nebraskan’s bona fides and credibility.
At times, members warned they did not want the tenor of the debate to ruin the committee’s bipartisan reputation.
In a noteworthy exchange, Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, accused Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, of going “over the line” by insinuating there was no way for the committee to know if Mr. Hagel obtained funds from a disreputable foreign government because of his failure to release certain financial records.
Mr. Cruz, who sat at the end of the table three seats away from his fellow Republicans, decried the accusations as baseless. After the hearing, he said there was nothing unusual about his request to see financial records to see if his compensation included payments from foreign governments.
“Senator Hagel is an honorable man who served his country, and no one on this committee, at any time, should impugn his character or his integrity,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Repubican, said in an attempt to refocus the meeting.
During debate, Republican members faulted Mr. Hagel’s prior statements on Iran and Israel and accused him of being ill-prepared for his confirmation hearing late last month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Mr. Hagel is the wrong man to take the helm while the “world is on fire.”
“There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many things,” Mr. Graham said, pronouncing his former GOP colleague to be in a “league of his own” in his policy views.
Mr. McCain said he could not support Mr. Hagel because his appearance at the hearing was the”most unimpressive performance” that he has seen during his tenure in the Senate. He also criticized Mr. Hagel for decrying the 2007 troop “surge” during the war in Iraq — a key talking point for Mr. McCain.
“I think we’re all responsible for our record,” he said, noting the nominee failed to recognize what was “obviously a success.”
And recently elected Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, said she could not vote for her fellow Cornhusker because his “views are so far afield.”
But Democrats took a far more forgiving and estimable view of the former senator, arguing his merits far outweigh his past mistakes.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said Mr. Hagel showed leadership by opting to face combat while many young men of his generation sought deferments.
“This is a man who stood up and said, ‘Let me go,’” she said. “And not only did he go, he served with courage on the battlefield.”