WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel kept his cool Thursday under a barrage of pointed questions from Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The former GOP senator from Nebraska needs a majority of the panel to advance his defense secretary nomination to the Senate floor. A committee vote could come as early as next week.
Over the course of more than eight hours, Hagel was grilled about his past statements and current positions on Iran, Israel, nuclear disarmament and cuts to the defense budget.
Republicans pulled no punches.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said Hagel's record and past statements “demonstrate greater antagonism for the nation of Israel than any member of this body.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Hagel's decision not to sign a pro-Israel letter “runs chills up my spine.”
And Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, said Hagel is the “wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.” For his part, Hagel adopted a relatively subdued tone for the hearing, at least compared to the fiery speeches and blunt statements that once made him a darling of the Sunday morning talk shows.
Hagel seemed determined not to mix it up too much with those on the other side of the dais, although he offered a firm defense of his record, saying he has always been willing to stand with Israel and against Iran, to support a modern and effective nuclear arsenal and a robust military.
When confronted with past statements, Hagel took different approaches at different times.
In reference to his past criticisms of unilateral sanctions against Iran as ineffective, Hagel said the U.S. and Iran are in very different places today compared to a decade ago.
And sometimes he simply told committee members he wished he could go back and edit what he had said.
In particular, he said he regretted referring to a “Jewish lobby” that intimidates American lawmakers. Pressed on which senators were intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby into making bad policy decisions, he said he should have used the word “influence” and declined to name a poor policy enacted under such pressure.
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Hagel pledged to provide honest and informed advice both to the president and to Congress. He nodded to his long record, casting more than 3,000 votes during his 12 years in the Senate and giving hundreds of interviews and speeches. He acknowledged he might have made mistakes along the way.
But he repeatedly said that his support for Israel has not wavered. He said he voted in Israel's favor over and over during his two terms in the Senate, that he has visited the country and met with its leaders many times.
“I'm a strong supporter of Israel,” Hagel said. “I have been. I will continue to be.”
The sharpest exchanges of the day came between Hagel and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The two once were close friends and political allies, but McCain repeatedly pressed Hagel on whether he was wrong to oppose the surge in Iraq, which McCain strongly supported and many credited with stabilizing the country.
The two went back and forth as McCain insisted on a yes or no answer of whether Hagel had been wrong.
“Well, I'm not going to give you a yes or no,” Hagel said. “I think it's far more complicated than that. As I've already said, my answer is I'll defer that judgment to history.” McCain wasn't satisfied.
“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 it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not. I hope you will reconsider the fact that you refused to answer a fundamental question about an issue that took the lives of thousands of young Americans.”
Over the hours of grueling testimony, there were times when Hagel grasped for answers or misspoke. For example, he was informed by note at one point that he had mistakenly said he supported the president's position of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. The president and Hagel say they support preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Democrats, who with a sympathetic independent hold a 14-12 advantage on the committee, were largely supportive of Hagel on Thursday. They touted his decision to voluntarily serve in combat in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., apologized to Hagel at one point for the “tone and demeanor” of some of his fellow committee members.
Hagel was introduced at the hearing by a bipartisan duo of former Armed Services chairmen, former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and John Warner, R-Va.
Warner noted that infantry soldiers have someone “take point” when they are out patrolling among the enemy.
“Chuck Hagel did that as a sergeant in Vietnam,” Warner said. “If confirmed, Chuck Hagel will do it again. This time, not before a platoon, but before every man and woman and the families in the armed services, you will lead them. And they will know in their hearts, we have one of our own.”
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