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Former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s path to confirmation as secretary of Defense will hinge to a tremendous degree on his performance at his Senate confirmation hearing, which promises to be a blockbuster, both those in favor and against his nomination agree.
Conservative Republicans, defense hawks and much of the pro-Israel community are girding for a fight, promising a strong lobbying effort to pressure moderate Republicans and Democrats to oppose the Nebraska Republican’s nomination, which was announced Monday by President Barack Obama.
“I think you’re going to see a multidimensional campaign to inform the American people and to inform senators about Chuck Hagel’s record and just how far out of the mainstream it is,” one Senate Republican aide said Sunday. Groups such as the Israel Project and the American Jewish Committee and commentators such as William Kristol of the Weekly Standard and former Bush administration official Dan Senor have all been active in denouncing Hagel’s qualifications and track record.
Hagel has alienated many in his party with his vocal criticism of the Bush administration’s management of the Iraq War, his support for engagement rather than sanctions against Iran and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and his critique of what he once dubbed the “Jewish lobby.” In recent years he has endorsed Democratic candidates for federal office and serves on Obama’s intelligence advisory board.
While a handful of Republican senators have come out firmly against the nomination before the announcement — including GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Dan Coats of Indiana, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Ted Cruz of Texas — other Republicans as well as Senate Democrats have remained noncommittal. All cite the need to hear from Hagel directly about his past comments and positions.
“He’s certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday morning. “The question we’ll be answering if he’s the nominee is, do his views make sense for that particular job. I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee. And he will be.”
Republican Marco Rubio of Florida has also expressed skepticism about Hagel, but his spokesman, Alex Conant, said Monday that Rubio will not pre-judge the nomination.
“Senator Rubio hopes he will be able to meet with Senator Hagel prior to his confirmation vote,” Conant said. “We’ll have questions about some of Senator Hagel’s past positions, including sanctions on Iran and promoting democracy in Latin America.”
The focus of the anti-Hagel lobbying efforts is likely to center on more moderate Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both of Tennessee, as well as other veteran GOP senators who served with and remain friends with Hagel. On the Democratic side, all eyes will be on a group of lawmakers known to be hawkish on Iran and staunch defenders of Israel, among them Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.