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No Significant Dem Opposition as Hagel Heads into Nomination Hearing

WASHINGTON – Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is expected to navigate a bumpy path through the Senate Armed Services Committee and ultimately emerge with a recommendation that he be confirmed as the nation’s next secretary of defense.

An aide in the office of Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, of Illinois, confirmed a report that originally appeared in Roll Call maintaining that there is no indication that any of the panel’s Democrats intend to oppose President Obama’s choice to succeed retiring Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.

Since Democrats outnumber Republicans 14-12 on the committee, the nomination of the Vietnam War veteran from Nebraska is likely headed to the Senate floor for final confirmation barring circumstances like a filibuster.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, is considered the likeliest Democrat to break from the party. He has acknowledged in interviews that while he respects the right of the president to select his cabinet he does not feel comfortable with some of the positions Hagel has staked out – primarily involving Iraq and Israel – and has refused to make a public commitment. But Blumenthal has said he ultimately expects Hagel to be confirmed.

Hagel, 66, scheduled for an appearance before the committee this morning, hasn’t picked up much support from his fellow Republicans. Thus far, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) stands as the lone GOP lawmaker to acknowledge his endorsement. Meanwhile, a growing number on what once was Hagel’s side of the aisle have made their opposition clear.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the panel’s ranking member, declared that “we are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination.”

Inhofe cited several concerns, asserting that Hagel doesn’t appear sufficiently wary of looming defense cuts that “would be devastating to our military.”

He also noted that Hagel supports nuclear disarmament “at a time when North Korea is threatening our allies with their nuclear capabilities and Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it,” threatening national security.

“On Iran and Israel, Sen. Hagel’s record concerns me as well,” said Inhofe, who was one of three votes against the confirmation of John Kerry as secretary of State in the full Senate this week. “In 2000, he was one of just four senators who refused to sign a letter affirming U.S. solidarity with Israel. In 2001 he was one of just two senators who voted against extending the sanctions against Iran. A year later, he urged the Bush administration to support Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization. Given the current tension in the Middle East that is largely being instigated by the Iranian regime, I am concerned with Sen. Hagel’s views.”

At least seven Republicans have openly declared their opposition to Hagel and a handful of others have stepped up to the line, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who indicated he is considering waging a filibuster against the nomination unless Panetta appears before Armed Services to testify about the recent incident in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

If all 53 Democrats plus two Independents who caucus with the Democrats wind up supporting Hagel, they will need to pick up five GOP votes to break any potential filibuster.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), another leading voice opposed to the nomination, noted that Panetta won a unanimous confirmation vote in the upper chamber and insisted that Obama “would be wise to nominate someone else for this critical position.”

“Sen. Hagel’s record of opposing Iran sanctions is troubling,” Wicker said. “His views and positions on the Middle East and Israel are contrary to the administration’s own stated policies and there are concerns from members of both parties about this nomination.”

Hagel, who has been busy meeting members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, actually has won over Democrats who initially reacted tepidly to the nomination, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, of New York, who was concerned about Hagel’s views on Israel and his reference at one time to “the Jewish lobby.”

Schumer said he received assurances from Hagel that allowed him to support the nomination.

“Sen. Hagel clarified a number of his past statements and positions and elaborated on several others,” Schumer said, adding that Hagel “realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.”

A key player may prove to be Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and onetime Hagel ally and friend. The two were so close that Hagel served as national co-chairman of McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2000.

The two have since had a falling out, reportedly over the war in Iraq – Hagel became a critic while McCain remained a strong proponent and urged a surge in U.S. troop strength.

McCain initially said he had “serious concerns about positions Sen. Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years,” but he has yet to declare his intentions. The two met privately last week resulting in what McCain described on ABC’s This Week last Sunday as “a very good conversation.” But he also said he was not completely satisfied with Hagel’s presentation.

“We had a very good conversation,” McCain said. “We’ve been friends for many years, so we’ll see what happens in the hearing.”