President Obama picks a confirmation fight. Can he win it?

January 7, 2013

When President Obama formally nominates Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense later today, he can be certain of one thing: The former Nebraska Republican Senator will face a major fight to win confirmation.


Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is President Obama's pick to be the next Secretary of Defense.

In conversations with a handful of current and former Senate aides -- of both parties -- over the weekend, there was almost uniform agreement that Hagel faces a rocky road to confirmation although none were willing to predict that he won't make the finish line.

The focus at the moment is on the Republican opposition to Hagel, opposition built around not simply his policy stances on Iran and Iraq, but also on his decision to, in their eyes, abandon the GOP once he left office.

"He basically doesn't have a single Senate Republican friend who served with him," said one senior GOP Senate aide granted anonymity to speak candidly. The source added that Hagel had not only given cover to Democrats on a number of high-profile issues but that he had also badly alienated his colleagues with his strong endorsement of former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey in the 2012 Nebraska Senate race.  

"Some Senate Republicans are still livid at his support for Bob Kerrey," acknowledged a senior Democratic with long ties to the Senate. "I think that's the real rub."

While the Republican opposition to Hagel has drawn most of the headlines to date, however, the real danger to Obama's pick to lead the Pentagon is from within the President's own party.  Past failed nominees -- both for Cabinet posts and Supreme Court -- have largely been done in not by the political opposition but rather by their own side. (See Miers, Harriet.)

And, while Hagel seemed to extinguish -- or at least mitigate -- a controversy over past comments about openly gay Ambassador James Hormel by issuing a full apology, his statements on Israel remain a major concern for Democrats, according to one veteran party aide in the Senate.

Added the source: "For these Democrats, the only reason to support Hagel is out of pure loyalty to the President. That is a major consideration, obviously, but Hagel will have some explaining to do on his past statements. A path certainly exists for him to be confirmed, but the administration can't simply take it for granted that there are 50 Democratic votes for him. They will need to work it."

(If you need a gauge on whether Hagel is going to make it, keep an eye on Senator Chuck Schumer.  Schumer has been lukewarm -- at best -- toward the prospect of Hagel at the Defense Department and the New York Senator is a major player and pivot point in this fight.)

Other Democrats expressed wonderment at Obama's decision to pick Hagel when the president backed off in a similar situation with Susan Rice, his preferred choice at the State Department.

"Everyone is scratching their heads, wondering why this is the one time that the President has drawn a line in the sand and actually intends to stick to it," said one Democratic Senate operative.

Added another Capitol Hill Democrat: "The choice is confounding...I think they can ultimately get through this fight, but the White House has to get ahead of this thing quickly."

The White House is, of course, aware of both the opposition (in both parties) to Hagel and the blemish it would leave on the start of Obama's second term to see his pick at Defense stumble in the confirmation process.

This, like much of politics, is a calculated risk by the White House designed, at least in part, to show that Obama won't back down from the prospect of a fight -- even one in which members of his own party may throw a punch or two his way.

Now, all he has to do is win.

Boehner laments his job: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) doesn't sound like somebody who's overjoyed about winning a second term as speaker.

"I need this job like I need a hole in the head," he told the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore.

Boehner told Moore that, at one point during "fiscal cliff" negotiations, Obama told him that the country didn't have a spending problem.

Boehner criticized Obama for being a rigid ideologue and declining to move to the middle.

"He's so ideological himself, and he's unwilling to take on the left wing of his own party, Boehner said.

Obama and Boehner have, at times, enjoyed a good relationship. For now, it's strained -- to say the least.

Fixbits:

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who has signaled some willingness to institute new gun control measures, cautions that Congress shouldn't over-do it and sounds hesitant about the ideas Obama is considering.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says tax increases are now off the table, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) disagrees.

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal's book details some tensions between the Pentagon and the White House

Must-reads:

"Chris Christie: Political calculator? Or just doing his job?" -- Angela Delli Santi, Christian Science Monitor

"GOP dissension over debt-ceiling strategy" -- Felicia Sonmez, Washington Post

"Christie 'straight talk' starts to grate on GOP right" -- Maggie Haberman, Politico

"G.O.P. Begins Soul-Searching After Tax Vote" -- Michael D. Shear and Jim Rutenberg, New York Times

"For Ryan’s Next Act, Balancing Pragmatism With Politics" -- Ashley Parker, New York Times

"Boehner Coup Attempt Larger Than First Thought" -- Jonathan Strong, Roll Call

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