Hagel meeting one-on-one with key players in confirmation battle

Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, left, met Tuesday with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in his bid to garner support for his confirmation. Hagel and Durbin answered reporters' questions after their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel's appointment book this week is packed.

The former GOP senator from Nebraska is making the rounds on Capitol Hill, sitting down with those who soon will vote on whether to make him the country's next defense secretary.

Hagel met with Sen. John McCain on Tuesday. The Arizona Republican is a key player who could bring a number of votes with him, for or against Hagel.

McCain described their session as a “very frank and candid conversation” but reserved making a decision until after Hagel's Jan. 31 confirmation hearing.

Hagel, during a brief conversation with reporters in the Capitol, declined to answer specific questions, simply saying, “We have a hearing next week and I look forward to answering questions.”

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said earlier in the day that it was too soon to count the votes and that he would have a better assessment of the support for Hagel after the hearing.

Asked if there were any clear Republican votes for Hagel, Levin said, “I haven't seen any, but there may be (some) that I haven't seen. That doesn't mean that there won't be.”

Levin, who supports Hagel's nomination, said Hagel is well-qualified, even if he doesn't see eye-to-eye with him on every policy area.

“He's made a bunch of statements over time which he will need to address and will address,” he said. “I don't agree with everything he's said over the years. Some things I will continue to disagree with, and some things he'll be able to explain.”

The Hagel nomination gained momentum last week as Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., two of the strongest pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate, said the former Nebraska senator had addressed their concerns about his stand on sanctions against Iran and support for Israel.

But Hagel has some work to do with Republicans.

He was scheduled to meet with Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Wednesday morning and also planned to meet soon with Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.

Other than a brief phone call after the nomination was announced, Johanns said the two haven't talked for about two years. Johanns said he was looking forward to getting reacquainted with Hagel and discussing the issues with him.

“I just want Chuck to explain his words,” Johanns said. “He's taken positions on the Middle East that are really, really contrary to very strong feelings I have. I'm anxious for him to talk about Iran, support for Israel, sanctions, many of the things that he has taken positions on.”

The top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, has said he will oppose Hagel's nomination over policy differences.

Inhofe said he hasn't started counting votes on his side of the aisle yet.

“There's an awful lot of people of who want to wait and see,” Inhofe said. “There may be a lot of Republicans who are already opposed to him that maybe they think, 'Well, if I come out before a hearing it doesn't sound realistic, it doesn't sound fair.'”

Also, a GOP-leaning group launched an anti-Hagel ad campaign in the home states of five Senate Democrats up for re-election next year.

“Say no to Chuck Hagel before it's too late,” said the commercials from Americans for a Stronger Defense. The spots target Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Udall of Colorado, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

Contact the writer: 202-630-4823, joe.morton@owh.com

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