WASHINGTON — Four years after leaving the U.S. Senate, former Sen. Chuck Hagel is President Barack Obama's pick to run the Pentagon.
In announcing the selection, Obama praised Hagel's decorated military service, his business experience and his time in the Senate. He also lauded Hagel's willingness to speak his mind, even when that proved unpopular.
But Hagel's confirmation as the next secretary of defense is far from a sure thing. The Republican nominee from Nebraska will require the backing of at least a majority of the Senate's 100 members. If the nomination is filibustered, he'll need 60 votes. The Democratic caucus currently numbers 55, the GOP 45.
Here's a look at a dozen senators who could determine whether Hagel takes the reins of the 3-million-person defense behemoth or finds himself back at his day job, teaching foreign policy at Georgetown University. Some look like his allies, and some appear to be enemies. Others are keeping their powder dry.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Why he matters: Without the Senate majority leader, Hagel's nomination would be dead in the water.
What he's said: “Sen. Hagel has a deep understanding of the national security establishment, which grew out of his experiences as a decorated war veteran, a former member of the Senate's Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees, and a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Few nominees have such a combination of strategic and personal knowledge of our national defense needs.”
Hagel ties: They served together through Hagel's two terms in the Senate. When Hagel was leaving the Senate, Reid praised him as “one of the bravest and most fiercely independent” members of the Senate and recounted working with Hagel to change the country's attitude toward the Iraq War.
Open question: Can Reid line up the rest of an often independent-minded Democratic caucus to support Hagel?
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Why he matters: He's the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and has close ties to the president. As a leader among the Senate's more liberal Democrats, Durbin's support could help blunt criticism from the left over Hagel's past statements and conservative record on gay rights, abortion and other issues.
What he's said: “Chuck Hagel was a Republican senator from Nebraska, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, a person who has a résumé that includes service on the Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the Intelligence Committee. Yes, he is a serious candidate ... .”
Hagel ties: Durbin worked with Hagel and then-Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., on comprehensive immigration reform measures.
Open question: If liberals mount serious opposition to Hagel, how hard will Durbin fight for him, and will he be effective?
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Why he matters: As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Levin will be walking point on the process and running the confirmation hearing. It will be up to him to step in and defend Hagel when necessary against attacks from opponents on the panel.
What he's said: “Sen. Hagel is well qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs. He was a decorated soldier and an effective member of the Senate, and he is a strong advocate for the men and women of our military. The Armed Services Committee will give prompt and careful consideration to Sen. Hagel's nomination for this critical position.”
Hagel ties: Hagel co-sponsored legislation with Levin in 2007 that would have begun a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq and ended combat missions there by mid-2008. Republicans blocked a vote on the measure.
Open question: Can he keep a determined group of Republican opponents from dominating the confirmation hearing?
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Why he matters: Graham has serious differences with Hagel on foreign policy. Graham is more likely to favor military intervention. He is an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, as a former military prosecutor, he's skilled at the art of dissecting those who appear before the committee.
What he's said: Graham told CNN that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history” and called his selection an “in-your-face nomination.”
Hagel ties: Hagel supported efforts by Graham and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to prevent U.S. torture of suspected terrorists.
Open question: Can Hagel keep his cool in the face of Graham's grilling?
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas
Why he matters: As minority whip, the Texan is the Senate's No. 2 Republican.
What he's said: “I will not support Chuck Hagel's nomination to the Department of Defense. His record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me. His opposition to (unilateral) Iranian sanctions and support for direct, unconditional talks with its leaders is both at odds with current U.S. policy and a threat to global security. To make matters worse, he has called for direct negotiations with Hamas. As Iran becomes increasingly hostile and gains influence in the region, the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel.”
Hagel ties: Nothing strong, though they served together in the Senate.
Open question: If Hagel cannot turn Cornyn around, how many votes can the conservative Texan bring along with him?
Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
Why he matters: This member of the Armed Services Committee looks as if he'll be gunning for Hagel.
What he's said: “I'll be a no vote on the Armed Services Committee and on the floor. 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.”
Hagel ties: None.
Open question: Does vocal opposition from a prostitution scandal-tarred senator really harm Hagel?
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Why she matters: Gillibrand has indicated the most trepidation about Hagel's nomination among the Democrats on the Armed Services Committee. With Democrats holding a 14-12 advantage over Republicans on the committee, even one defection could spell trouble.
What she's said: “Sen. Hagel is a war hero who served our country honorably and was prescient in his questioning of the Iraq War. But we must look at his entire public service record in its totality in the upcoming confirmation hearings. Considering some of the statements Sen. Hagel has made, and votes he has cast, particularly regarding Iran policy, tough questions must and will be asked to clarify his views before these hearings are complete.”
Hagel ties: Gillibrand entered the Senate after Hagel left.
Open question: Will Hagel be able to satisfy the concerns of a senator with a large pro-Israel constituency?
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Why he matters: Schumer is the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and wields significant influence among Democrats.
What he's said: “Chuck Hagel, as a former colleague and a patriot with a decorated service record, has earned the right to nothing less than a full and fair process in the Senate. I look forward to fully studying his record and exploring his views.”
Hagel ties: The two served together for years. In 2005, Schumer praised Hagel for his efforts to seek compromise but criticized his proposal to create personal investment accounts for Social Security, describing it as privatization.
Open question: How will Gillibrand's interactions with Hagel during the hearing affect Schumer's position?
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
Why he matters: Inhofe is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which means he can influence the intensity of any Republican opposition.
What he's said: “I worked with Sen. Chuck Hagel in the Senate, and his nomination deserves to be fully vetted. The Armed Services Committee has a time-tested process to consider nominations, and I am committed to upholding that process. I am aware of the serious concerns about some of his policy positions, his record, and some of his comments that have been publicly reported. I will be seeking clarification from him about these concerns as his nomination proceeds.”
Hagel ties: They served together in the Senate.
Open question: Will he stoke the GOP fires or tamp them down?
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Why she matters: Nebraska's junior senator just landed a spot on Armed Services, so she'll have plenty of opportunity to grill Hagel and vote on his nomination. As Hagel's home-state colleagues, Fischer and Sen. Mike Johanns, also a Republican, will be watched by other senators for cues.
What she's said: She's looking forward to a fair and thorough process but has concerns about Hagel's record on issues related to Israel. She noted that some Democrats share her concerns. “It's not just Republican or conservative concerns. It's bipartisan concerns,” Fischer told The World-Herald.
Hagel ties: Fischer and Hagel have known each other for years, and Fischer says he encouraged her to run for Senate. Still, he showed up to make a last-minute endorsement of her opponent, Democrat Bob Kerrey.
Open questions: Will Hagel's answers in the hearing and the potential benefits to Offutt Air Force Base from having a Secretary Hagel persuade her to vote yes?
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
Why he matters: Home-state colleagues always get a lot of attention. Johanns also is respected by many of his fellow Senate Republicans and could swing some votes for or against Hagel. He knows the confirmation process well, having gone through it when President George W. Bush named him agriculture secretary.
What he's said: Johanns told The World-Herald that Hagel burned some bridges in the Senate, and he questioned some of Hagel's statements on the Middle East, particularly regarding the United States' approach to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. “It's very troublesome because you're trying to negotiate with someone who's trying to get the upper hand to destroy our ally (Israel),” Johanns said.
Hagel ties: The two were once close political allies. Hagel defended Johanns at a critical juncture of his run for governor and backed Johanns' successful bid to replace him in the Senate after Hagel retired. Johanns was critical of Hagel for endorsing Kerrey in Nebraska's recent Senate race.
Open question: Will public sentiment in Nebraska and Fischer's interactions with Hagel during the committee hearing influence how Johanns votes?
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Why he matters: McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, can make life difficult for Hagel by rallying his side of the aisle against the nomination. Or he could back Hagel and bring along some other GOP votes.
What he's said: “Chuck Hagel served our nation with honor in Vietnam, and I congratulate him on this nomination. I have serious concerns about positions Sen. Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process before the Senate Armed Services Committee.”
Hagel ties: Hagel and McCain were buddies back in the day. The two combat-wounded Vietnam veterans forged close personal and professional connections. But as time went on, they drifted apart personally and politically. They differed sharply on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hagel declined to endorse McCain's 2008 presidential bid. Hagel's wife, Lilibet, publicly endorsed Barack Obama. Hagel also was highly critical of McCain's vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin.
Open question: Will McCain really turn his back on his old pal, a former colleague and fellow vet?