An administration official said the combative nature of the hearing did not come as a surprise for a nominee who has faced more sustained and personal opposition than any of Obama’s Cabinet picks.
“There’s no indication that this is peeling off any support that was there before today,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal assessment of the hearing.
The ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee set the tone for the confirmation hearing for Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska with a reputation for bluntness but also nuanced foreign policy views.
“Why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?” Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) asked Hagel, in an apparent reference to an Iranian news agency report conveying hope from the Islamic republic that Hagel’s confirmation would bring “practical changes” in U.S. policy.
Hagel appeared defensive, frustrated and lethargic during much of the hearing. But none of the zingers or missteps appeared serious enough to sway a significant number of senators to vote across party lines. Democrats outnumber Republicans on the committee 14 to 12, and administration officials and analysts said the vote would probably fall along party lines.
“None of the votes that probably would have been for him have shifted,” said Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation who supports Hagel’s nomination. But he expressed surprise by the lack of charisma the seasoned politician displayed on the witness chair. “Hagel, who can be hilarious, didn’t show much of that today,” Clemons lamented.
Hagel’s nomination has triggered sustained criticism since his name was first suggested for the job in December. Previous remarks and votes on issues ranging from sanctions against Iran to the propriety of having an openly gay ambassador became fodder for a barrage of ads and an intense lobbying campaign that has sought to doom his nomination.
During his opening statement, Hagel defended his record, saying he always acted with integrity but acknowledging that it was not devoid of “mistakes.” If he is confirmed, Hagel said, he would run the Pentagon guided by a long-held philosophy: “Is our policy worthy of our troops and their families and the sacrifices that we ask them to make?”