While Republican Chuck Hagel appears likely to win confirmation to lead the Pentagon, many senators in both parties are still holding back their formal endorsements or opposition.
Officially, many say they are waiting for the former Nebraska senator’s nomination hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Each side has multiple concerns, and some are not directly related to what Hagel represents personally.
Doubts about his views on Israel and gay rights have proved complicated for Democrats, who normally rush to bless Cabinet picks from a president in their own party. And Republicans have their own thorny calculations, particularly since many of them served with Hagel in the Senate.
Congressional aides from both parties have drawn the conclusion that because Hagel is likely to be confirmed, it would be better not to alienate a new Defense secretary.
“This is very tricky,” one GOP aide noted. “We will have to work with him.”
Hagel has won the backing of at least one Republican senator, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking member on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, who said Tuesday that he plans to vote for confirmation.
The one GOP senator who is openly threatening to hold up the nomination has been careful to say that any filibuster would be related to the Obama administration’s forthrightness with Congress on last year’s fatal attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News Monday night that he was “absolutely” ready to block Hagel until Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testified on the Benghazi attack. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services panel, shrugged off the threat, saying Tuesday that a Panetta hearing was in the works.
Graham has also said he is worried about Hagel’s views on Iran and Israel.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine recently met with Hagel for 90 minutes. The conversation, she said, ran the gamut from personnel issues like military suicides and the continued implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal to the declining defense budget. Hagel, she said, assured her that the looming across-the-board sequester cuts would be catastrophic for the Defense Department, as Panetta has warned.
“That seems to represent an evolution in his comments where he said the Pentagon was bloated,” Collins said, pointing to one of the arguments Republicans have made against Hagel being the next Pentagon chief.
But Collins, who sat on the Senate Armed Services Committee until the beginning of this Congress, said she will withhold judgment until after Hagel’s confirmation hearing this week. “I want to see what he says before the Armed Services Committee,” she said, adding that she is particularly interested in Hagel’s responses before the panel on Iran sanctions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.