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Bipartisan Comity Fraying on Defense Panel

Benghazi, Hagel nomination create deep discord on Senate Armed Services Committee

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Inhofe, left, took over as the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services panel after McCain, and committee Democrats have rebuked Inhofe for his more partisan approach.

The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee insist that despite highly partisan clashes over the handling of the killings of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and the nomination of a new Defense secretary, the panel should have no difficulty reaching agreement on a defense policy bill later this year.

But the caustic exchanges at a meeting Tuesday, where the panel voted to approve Chuck Hagel as the next Pentagon chief, left some Democrats flabbergasted. The tension peaked when Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz implied, without offering any evidence, that Hagel might have received indirect payments from nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, and the panel’s new ranking Republican, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, suggested Hagel was “cozy” with Iran.

“I want to put on the record that this senator feels that Sen. Cruz has gone over the line,” Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a senior member of the panel, said in an unusual personal rebuke of a fellow member.

Nelson went on to offer a veiled rebuke of Inhofe’s more partisan approach to leading the panel’s Republicans, particularly compared with his predecessor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“And I would encourage this committee to take the role model of its former chairman, Sen. McCain, who can get into it hot and heavy, but at the end of the day, he’s going to respect the other person’s motives.”

Indeed, McCain was quickly prompted to intercede. “I just want to make it clear Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. He served his country,” McCain said. “And no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity.”

The exchange between Nelson and Cruz was one of several that highlighted the level of deeply personal discord that has developed among senators and has caused observers to question whether the panel could implode later in the year. Indeed, this was underscored when Republicans repeatedly called on Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who denied the requests, to put off the vote until Hagel had answered all of the Republicans’ queries about his earnings.

Hagel has angered Republicans over statements he has made relating to Iran, Israel, nuclear disarmament and possible defense cuts. But at the core of much Republican anger was the Nebraska Republican’s turn against the Iraq War.

Levin was unusually pointed at times in addressing GOP members, particularly after Cruz said Levin’s refusal to support his demands “sets a dangerous precedent.”

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