- By Josh Rogin
Several more Republican senators tell The Cable have decided to oppose the confirmation of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense after hearing him testify Thursday.
Hagel’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee was often contentious and combative as the nominee sought to assuage Republicans about some of his previous controversial statements while defending other positions he has taken over his decades of public and private service. For example, Hagel apologized for using the term "Jewish lobby" and said that the pro-Israel lobby "influences" rather than "intimidates" Congress, correcting the record on comments he made years ago to Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller.
But Hagel’s comments on subjects ranging from Iran to Iraq to nuclear weapons were apparently not well-received by the GOP caucus, and several Republican senators told The Cable they were more inclined to opposed Hagel’s nomination after his performance at the hearing.
Sen. John McCain was publicly displeased when Hagel refused to provide a yes-or-no answer when the Arizona senator asked him if he were wrong about opposing the U.S. surge of troops to Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
"I want to know if you were right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer," McCain said.
"Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer on a lot of things today," Hagel responded
"I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether vote for your confirmation or not," McCain said.
In the hallways of the Capitol building, The Cable caught up with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who had been noncommittal but now said that he was very likely to vote against Hagel.
"It’s not looking good," Graham said. "I don’t think he’s been consistent over time on major issues."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is not on the committee, but he told The Cable he watched it on television and concluded he would definitely vote against Hagel’s confirmation.
"I don’t think he’s going to be able the questions I’m going to have. I saw the hearing and I won’t be able to support him," Rubio said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) got into a heated exchange with Hagel at the hearing over the latter’s participation in the Global Zero report, which calls for steep reductions in U.S. nuclear stockpiles. Sessions and Hagel debated whether the report actually calls for unilateral reductions in the U.S. nuclear armament or just suggests that as one possible option.
"But here’s the key part of all this — and by the way, this was summarized in a letter to President Obama in 2009 — bilateral, never unilateral — nothing was ever suggested on a unilateral basis to take down our arsenal — negotiated, verifiable," Hagel said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Hagel on the issue at Thursday’s press briefing.
"The position that Senator Hagel has taken on nuclear weapons is the same position that President Kennedy took. It is the same position that President Ronald Reagan took. It is the same position that, you know, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn have taken. And it is the same position the president, this president, expressed in his speech in Prague," Carney said. "You know, the world would be a better place if we could rid it of nuclear weapons. Until that time comes about, we maintain the most serious and credible nuclear deterrent, as we should."
Meanwhile, as The Cable reported Wednesday, the White House is preparing to ask Russia to start a new round of nuclear-reduction negotiations and is also examining options for unilateral reductions if the Russians don’t agree.
"I was a little uneasy about Hagel’s answers," Sessions told The Cable about the exchange. "I thought he treated it too lightly and suggested far too readily that there’s no conflict between the Global Zero report and what the Department of Defense and the president’s position is on nuclear weapons."
Hagel also stumbled by saying he supported President Barack Obama‘s policy of containment with Iran, before Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) corrected him and said that the administration’s policy was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, not to contain a nuclear Iran.
Even some GOP senators who did not watch the hearing expressed new opposition to the Hagel nomination Thursday.
"I have serious reservations about it," Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) told The Cable. "I know Chuck. He’s a good guy. I like him personally. But I have serious reservations about him becoming the secretary of defense."
Hagel still enjoys the support of all the Senate Democrats who have spoken publicly about the nomination and one GOP senator, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). A filibuster of his nomination, which is unlikely, would only be possible if almost every GOP senator opposes his nomination.
The hearing stretched late into the afternoon Thursday and the committee left open the possibility for a closed hearing to follow. A vote on the nomination in committee is not expected this week, but may fall along party lines.
When the Hagel nomination does come before the full Senate, even non-committee Republicans say they will look back on today’s testimony when making their decision.
"What I told Senator Hagel in our meeting is that I was going to listen very carefully for the hearing today," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).