As Chuck Hagel prepares for his confirmation hearing to be the next Defense secretary, the former senator can expect a barrage of questions on his support for openly gay servicemembers and his plans for extending certain benefits to gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families.
Hagel’s path to nomination — and, now, confirmation — has been muddied in part by comments he made 15 years ago about the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, whom the Nebraska Republican then called “openly, aggressively gay.”
Last month, Hagel issued an apology for those comments, calling his remarks insensitive and assuring his support of open service and his commitment to gay and lesbian military families.
But his nomination comes at a pivotal time, just over two years after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a law he supported during his time in the Senate.
For many leading gay rights advocacy groups and their supporters on Capitol Hill, support for Hagel’s nomination will ultimately come down to how he fields questions when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the coming weeks.
“This is one nominee for which the hearings will be critical because ... we are going to be very interested in what he has to say on a whole host of different issues,” said Fred Sainz, vice president for communications at the Human Rights Campaign.
The HRC and other groups will be watching to see how Hagel’s views on gay issues have evolved over the past 15 years, as have many Americans’ since the 1990s.
Hagel got low marks from the HRC during his two terms in the Senate, but Sainz said he does not consider him to be a “fire-breather on gay issues.” Meanwhile, Hagel’s clear support from President Barack Obama, who pushed for the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and supports gay marriage, has prompted the HRC and other groups to take a measured approach to the nomination.
“It is entirely understandable that an individual could have said really ignorant things back 15 years ago ... and understand how those statements would be inappropriate in today’s context,” Sainz said.
Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who last week became the first openly gay senator, has said she wants to talk to Hagel to see how his views have evolved since 1998. Speaking on MSNBC on Monday, Baldwin signaled that Hagel’s stance on gay issues is all the more significant because of the repeal of the ban on openly gay servicemembers.
“We need to see that implemented successfully,” she said.
For many gay rights advocates, Hagel’s nomination is less about his previous statements than it is about his commitment to equal benefits for gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families, a top priority since the repeal of the 1993 law.
“It’s one thing for Sen. Hagel to say he is committed to LGBT military families, but actions speak louder than words,” said Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association.
At least one gay advocacy group, the Log Cabin Republicans, is openly trying to scuttle Hagel’s nomination. The group took out an ad in The New York Times in late December and another one in The Washington Post on Monday aimed at dissuading Obama from nominating Hagel.
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.