In a nomination that was as much about President Obama thumbing his nose at Senate opponents of a Susan Rice nomination as it was about putting on a “bipartisan” display, former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel was nominated for Defense secretary today.
With retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quipping that he was looking forward “dealing with a different set of nuts” back on his California walnut farm, Obama proposed turning the reins of the Pentagon over to “the leader that our troops deserve.”
And, knowingly, the president turned up the spigot of controversy — adding to the day’s nominations a tip to counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as new head of the CIA.
Brennan has a track record of comments that have given conservatives and national security hawks pause — including referring to jihad as legitimate holy struggle — and questions still swirl about his role in Benghazi, but his nomination didn’t evoke the reaction Hagel’s did. With multiple nominations to juggle — and an almost assured confirmation for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at the State Department — Republicans have zeroed in on the battle they wish to fight: against a senator who used to serve in their ranks.
“Chuck Hagel’s leadership of our military would be historic. He’d be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of Defense, one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department. As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, in Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength. They see one of their own,” Obama said in the East Room announcement.
“Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington. For his independence and commitment to consensus, he’s earned the respect of national security and military leaders, Republicans and Democrats — including me,” he added. “In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind — even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom.”
The opposition to a Hagel nomination began even before Obama stepped up to the podium today. But once it was official, the voices from the GOP grew louder and more resolute.
“I’ll be a no vote on the Armed Services Committee and on the floor,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said. “Given Chuck Hagel’s statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike.”
“Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse,” Vitter said.
“I am surprised and disappointed President Obama has chosen to move forward with Senator Hagel’s nomination given the significant concerns that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have expressed about Senator Hagel’s positions and past votes on issues regarding some of our closest allies and most pressing national security threats,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
“I believe Senator Hagel should get a fair look and an opportunity to defend his record, his past comments, and his current beliefs, but I don’t understand why the administration is looking to pick yet another political fight instead of working with Congress to solve some of the very real problems we face as a country,” Portman added.
GOP Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told CNN it was “premature” to talk about putting a hold on Hagel’s nomination just yet.
“We have a number of people, including my colleague, Dan Coats, and others who I know you’ve heard from just recently, who’ve expressed their concerns, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others,” Cornyn said. “There have been a number of Democrats who privately have said that they have concerns and are unwilling to commit to his confirmation.”
“So there’s going to be a lot happen between now and the hearing, and after the hearing.”
One of those skeptical pro-Israel, tough-on-Iran Democrats said Hagel needs to answer some key questions.
“I have concerns based on positions he has taken and statements he has made on a variety of topics,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has asked for a one-on-one meeting with Hagel. “Despite my reservations, I will not prejudge his nomination but will give him ample opportunity to explain himself and current thinking on the future state and scope of our military, relationships with our allies, including Israel, and how he believes we should address challenges to our national security like Iran.”