Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday afternoon, but only after an hours-long hearing in which conservatives over and over objected to Hagel's views on Iran, Israel, nuclear weapons, and how much income he has disclosed.
The straight party-line vote of 14-11 sets up a contentious showdown on the Senate floor now expected to come on Thursday. Republicans, who lost a bid to prevent the committee vote, said before the hearing they would try to require that Hagel receive 60 votes for confirmation, rather than a simple majority.
But Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman, rejected the 60-vote threat. "There will not be a 60-vote tally on the final vote," Levin told the E-Ring, following the hearing. "Senator Reid has already made that clear. He made it clear at the meeting. I told him that I totally concur, that you cannot just make a cabinet position, just agree that on a final vote it's anything other than a majority vote. The 60-vote rule has to do with ending debate. It does not have to do with approving a bill or approving a nominee. There's a lot of confusion about that, understandably so."
Levin said that as a shortcut the Senate might pull a low-level bill or nominee they know doesn't have 60-vote support. It happens "once in a while round here, but it surely never would be used on a cabinet position," he said.
In what amounted to a second confirmation hearing without Hagel present, Republicans and Democrats rehashed all of their reasons for opposing or supporting President Barack Obama's choice to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, but did little to sway each other from their fortified positions.
Instead, Democrats accused Republicans of stepping over the lines of decorum by questioning Hagel's patriotism and truthfulness. Republicans countered that they were asking fair questions that Hagel continues to dodge, including asking for clear evidence of whether $200,000 in income Hagel received through a capital group came from "radical groups" or foreign governments, including North Korea.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted against Hagel's nomination. McCain cited Hagel's refusal at the first confirmation hearing to agree with McCain's assertion that the Iraq surge worked. McCain also said he wanted to know more about Hagel's income from speeches given since he left the Senate.
McCain led a blockade that pits Senate Republicans against a significant number of bipartisan national security giants who have voiced their support for Hagel's nomination in recent weeks, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. Colin Powell, and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.
The very bipartisan tradition of the committee was tested sharply by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who made a stunning accusation by saying, "If Chuck Hagel is confirmed, it will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely." Cruz argued that a Hagel Pentagon would "encourage" Iran to speed up its nuclear program, which would thus require the U.S. to put troops "in harm's way" to stop Tehran. Cruz also complained Hagel would not answer additional questions about income from foreign governments.
That prompted a stern Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to lecture the rookie directly. "Sen. Cruz has gone over the line. He basically impugned the patriotism of the nominee... about being cozy with Iran." Nelson said that former Sen. John Warner (R-VA) had "visibly winced" at Cruz's questioning in the first hearing.
"There's a certain degree of comity and civility that this committee has always been known for. And clearly, in the sharpness of difference of opinion, to question, in essence, whether somebody is a fellow traveler with another country, I think, is taking it too far," Nelson said.
"In no way shape or form have I impugned his patriotism," Cruz replied, and also denied claiming that Hagel was being untruthful. "His answers could be entirely truthful... my point is not that he has lied, it is that he refused to answer additional questions."
But ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-OK) then said that Iran "endorsed" Hagel. "You can't get any cozier than that."
Finally, McCain spoke up to quiet his colleagues: "I just want to make it clear. Senator Hagel is an honorable man. He has served his country and no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity."
As for the actual issues, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), in opposition, focused on Iran.
"I was deeply troubled by his statements with regard to containment [of Iran]," she said. Hagel stumbled in his confirmation hearing by saying he supported the U.S. policy of "containment," which would mean permitting Iran to acquire nuclear weapons but not allow them to spread to other countries. Actual U.S. policy, backed by the Senate, opposes containment. Hagel, in that hearing, corrected himself after making the flub.
"I don't think he came across clear and convincing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), protesting Hagel's Iran answers, as well. "There's very few people with his voting record when it comes to Iran and Israel. There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many things."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opposed Hagel but said he thought the blunder was an honest slip of the tongue.
Sen. Levin argued that a Hagel defeat "would leave the Department of Defense leaderless" and warned of "an absence of senior leadership." But Panetta, aides say, has no plans to leave office before his successor is confirmed.
Levin wielded a strong gavel. He refused to accept GOP claims that he knowingly was hiding tapes or transcripts of six of Hagel's previous speeches from the committee. "He's not trying to hide speeches if he gave us 80 speeches," Levin said. Levin said members would have time to review any newly uncovered speeches -- "24 hours or so" -- depending on when majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) brings the nomination for a vote.
"We will survive this one," Levin said. "I have no doubt about this committee's future bipartisanship, as difficult as this vote is."
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