If nominated, Chuck Hagel could face bruising confirmation fight for defense post

Chuck Hagel

Photos: Chuck Hagel through the years.


If it's true, former Nebraskan Chuck Hagel is in for a bruising confirmation hearing.

Talk rose to a crescendo Friday that Democratic President Barack Obama was poised to nominate Hagel, a Republican, as his defense secretary.

Foreign Policy, a respected magazine that covers global affairs, reported on its website that the timing and logistics of an announcement were being finalized. Other national media outlets said Hagel would get the nod either Monday or Tuesday.

Hagel's name has been bandied about for weeks as Obama's top pick to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. The Vietnam veteran has some powerful allies in the White House, notably Vice President Joe Biden, who formed close ties with Hagel when the two served in the Senate.

If the last couple of weeks are any indication, Hagel's nomination would meet fierce opposition from pro-Israel groups and others critical of Hagel's views on the Middle East.

Hagel has angered some with suggestions in the past that Israel needed to be more flexible in peace talks with the Palestianians. He also caused an uproar when he said he preferred that the U.S. negotiate a deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, rather than go to war.

Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns said that he would expect a Hagel confirmation hearing to be “intense” and that it would require 60 votes to override an expected filibuster.

Johanns said the biggest concerns among both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are Hagel's views on the Middle East, and the fact that he has had a troublesome relationship in the past with some supporters of Israel.

“I'm not saying it's a deal killer today. I'm saying it really raises a lot of concern, and I'm confident it raises concerns on both sides of the aisle,” said Johanns, who said he has not made a “final decision” on where he stands in the event of a Hagel nomination.

Hagel is clearly capable of handing the expected storm.

During his dozen years in the Senate, he frequently courted controversy in Washington and in Nebraska, where he was viewed as either a maverick or a partisan turncoat because of his propensity to break ranks with the GOP.

Most notably, Hagel faced fierce criticism from Republicans when he turned publicly against former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War.

Most recently, he angered Republicans in Nebraska when he flew back to the state to endorse Democrat Bob Kerrey's failed U.S. Senate bid against Republican Deb Fischer.

Fischer, who was sworn into the Senate on Thursday, said Friday that it was “premature” to comment on Hagel when he had not yet been nominated.

She also noted that if his name were put forward, she would have a front-row seat to his confirmation hearing because of her recent appointment to the Armed Services Committee.

If Hagel is nominated and filibustered, Fischer's vote could be crucial. As it stands now, there are 55 Democrats in the Senate. He would need the votes of at least five Republicans to be confirmed.

Over the last few weeks, the battle lines over Hagel's potential nomination have been drawn, with powerful pro-Hagel and anti-Hagel factions taking to the airwaves and print to express their views.

Opponents have been poring over Hagel's extensive public record to bolster their opposition.

He has come under fire from gay rights groups angry at his 1998 opposition to an openly gay man's nomination as an ambassador. At the time, Hagel criticized James Hormel as being “openly, aggressively gay” and unfit to represent his country abroad.

Hagel recently apologized for those remarks.

“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” he said in a statement. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.”

But, by far, the most vocal Hagel critics come from pro-Israel groups, who say Hagel is not a firm ally of that country, even though he has repeatedly called himself a staunch supporter of Israel.

Groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, funded by gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, and the Israel Project have spoken out against Hagel. They have criticized Hagel for not in the past supporting sanctions against Iran over their nuclear program and for urging Obama to seek talks with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

This week, another conservative newspaper took aim at Hagel. The Free Beacon published a story Thursday about Hagel's alleged attempt in the late 1980s to shut down a USO port in Haifa, Israel, as head of the World USO.

The paper quoted a woman involved in the battle, saying she was offended at comments Hagel made during a discussion on the possible closure. “He said to me, 'Let the Jews pay for it,' ” said Marsha Halteman, who helped lead the battle to keep open the Haifa operation.

Hagel also faces criticism from some former colleagues. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the powerful Senate Republican whip, has said he would oppose Hagel.

However, Hagel has his supporters.

Several former national security advisers have formed the Bipartisan Group to support Hagel's expected nomination. They also have taken out advertisements this past week in both the Washington Post and on Politico, an political news website, supporting Hagel.

The group includes high-powered hitters in the foreign policy world, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and Brent Scowcroft, a former adviser to former President George H.W. Bush and Gary Hart, a former presidential candidate and former senator from Colorado.

In the letter, published in December, the group wrote: “We ... believe our polarized political life is much in need of leaders with the kind of bipartisanship and independence of conscience and mind that Chuck Hagel's service to our country has exemplified.”

Finally, one of Hagel's biggest supporters appears to be the president.

Obama rose to defend Hagel Sunday, during an appearance on NBC's “Meet The Press.”

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama said. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate (and) somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1309, robynn.tysver@owh.com

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