Senate confirmation of President Barack Obama’s pick to be U.S. defense secretary remains uncertain after a contentious hearing before the Armed Services Committee. Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel faced hours of intense and sometimes combative questioning from one-time colleagues.
If Hagel’s goal for his confirmation hearing was to win the backing of Republican lawmakers, his exchange with Sen. John McCain seemed ominous.
McCain repeatedly asked if Hagel regretted his opposition to the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq.
“The question is: were you right or wrong? That is a pretty straightforward question,” he said.
Hagel declined to answer. “I am not going to give you a yes or no. I think it is far more complicated than that. As I have already said, my answer is: I will defer that judgment to history,” he said.
McCain fired back.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir. And you are on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not,” he said.
Hagel was also put on the defensive over past votes and statements concerning Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s backing for international terrorism, Israel’s influence in U.S. politics, and the necessity of America’s nuclear arsenal. Hagel repeatedly proclaimed his support for Obama administration policies, regardless of past statements or actions.
“I am on the record on many issues. But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, no one individual statement defines me,” Hagel said.
Sen. James Inhofe, another Republican, was not impressed.
“Senator Hagel’s record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream. Too often, it seems, he is willing to subscribe to a worldwide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends,” he said.
Hagel rejected the allegation. “My overall worldview has never changed: That America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world, that we must lead in the international community to confront threats and challenges together,” he said.
The hearing was not entirely hostile. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, noted Hagel’s service as an enlisted soldier in the Vietnam War. He holds two Purple Hearts for wounds received in action.
“It would be a positive message for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in harm’s way around the world to know that one of their own holds the highest office in the Department of Defense, and that he has their backs,” Levin said.
Hagel appears to have the support of Democratic senators, who hold a majority in the Senate. But he would need at least five Republican votes for confirmation if any senator used a procedural maneuver to force a three-fifths vote on his nomination. He would succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.