WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said Saturday he will support Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary.
The loudest objections to the nomination since it was first floated have been over Hagel's past comments toward Iran and Israel. Opponents have argued he's been too soft on Iran and too tough on Israel.
Johanns said the greatest among his own concerns about Hagel dealt with his views on the Middle East and Israel.
But Johanns said that his hour-long meeting with Hagel and Thursday's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee convinced him to back the nomination.
"At the end of it I was comfortable that he will be a strong supporter of our allies, he will be a strong supporter of Israel," Johanns told The World-Herald. "I think he'll be firm with our enemies and I believe he'll be side by side with our allies and I believe he'll exercise good judgment."
He said he was struck by Hagel's statement during the hearing that he would change some of his past statements if he could.
"That's Chuck's way of saying, 'It's one thing as an individual senator to talk about a whole host of things, it's quite another thing if you're a member of the president's cabinet' and that is a very, very important difference."
Johanns said he probably knows Hagel as well as any member of the Senate. The two have personal and political ties that go back many years.
Still, he said, his support is not about personal connections. Johanns said he would have voted against Hagel despite their friendship if he weren't comfortable that he would do a good job running the Pentagon.
Johanns said a major factor for him was the passion Hagel displayed in their private meeting and the public hearing for those who serve in uniform.
"He just deeply cares about these people and I certainly want somebody in the Secretary of Defense office who has that genuine concern and care for the men and women who are out there making the sacrifice and understand what it's all about, and I just don't know how you could improve in that area upon Chuck Hagel," Johanns said.
Hagel's performance under Thursday's intense questioning has been panned by many commentators, but Johanns expressed sympathy for the eight hours Hagel spent being grilled.
Johanns had his own confirmation hearing as President George W. Bush's nominee for Agriculture Secretary.
"I think I walked in there and people felt this is the right guy for this job and yet the stress you go through preparing for it . . ." Johanns said, adding that he tought the questioning of Hagel was fair.
Johanns said he hopes his support helps win Hagel more votes although he doesn't plan to actively lobby on his behalf.
As for his home-state colleague, fellow Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, Johanns said she'll be making up her own mind.
"Deb is an enormously capable person who will make a call on this one the way she thinks is best, and Deb just doesn't need me running around telling her how to vote on things," he said. "She operates very nicely on her own."