With some in the GOP already threatening a hold, Democrats will likely need to get to 60 votes to move Hagel’s nomination through the Senate, meaning he’ll need to win over at least five Republicans.
One Senate Democratic aide said his boss was inclined to be supportive but would need to be convinced, given the criticism of Hagel that has garnered since his name was floated as a top contender for the post last month.
“He gets the benefit of the doubt by being President Obama’s choice and for having tried to make amends,” the aide said, “but he’s going to need to put on a real show over the next few weeks to prove he’s not the Israel-hating, gay-bashing villain that’s been portrayed these last few months” — an apt summary of where much of the Democratic rank and file is at this point.
Indeed, the attacks on Hagel, particularly in the conservative press, have been unrelenting over the past several weeks.
Much of the ire has been focused on what critics say have been his record of anti-Israel statements and votes, including his 2008 comments on the “Jewish lobby” and his failure to sign on to a 1999 letter to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin — signed by all 99 other senators — condemning anti-Semitism in Russia.
Hagel backers retort that he always had a policy of not signing letters to foreign heads of state regarding their domestic policy and that he misspoke when he used the term “Jewish lobby.” He has also opposed attempts to sanction Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, which is at odds with a Congress that has been strongly supportive of increasingly tough measures to isolate Tehran and its allies.
That raises real questions, the Senate GOP aide said, as to how Hagel would perform at the helm of the Pentagon. “How will he advise the president on the ratcheting up of sanctions against Iran, on military planning vis-à-vis Iran, on countering Hezbollah’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere?” the aide asked.
He also noted that the United States has a “very robust Israel defense cooperation relationship” and that Hagel’s positions create concerns about how he would handle intelligence sharing and other communication. “There’s definitely a lot that can be chilled, slowed, impacted by a secretary of Defense that is hostile to Israel,” he said.
Hagel has also taken heat from the gay community for objections, in 1998, to an ambassador nominee he characterized as “openly, aggressively gay.”
The criticism has prompted a backlash from many senior members of the foreign policy community in Washington, with a number of foreign policy veterans lobbying to Hagel’s defense, including former Democratic national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former Reagan Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci and veteran diplomats, a number of whom served as ambassador to Israel, including Thomas R. Pickering, R. Nicholas Burns, Ryan Crocker, Daniel Kurtzer, William Harrop and Edward Djerejian.
One Hagel backer said he expected opposition to the nomination to dissipate after the Nebraska Republican gets to testify before the Senate and counter what he considers to be a grossly inaccurate portrayal of the retired lawmaker and Vietnam veteran.