Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee backed former senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to lead the Pentagon on Tuesday afternoon, paving the way for the full Senate to vote on President Obama’s nominee this week.
The committee vote predictably split along party lines, with the 14 Democrats voting in favor of moving the nomination to the floor and 11 Republicans voting no. One Republican was absent.
Democrats backed the former Republican lawmaker despite a performance during his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing that even supporters called underwhelming. Republicans on the committee continued to voice strong reservations about Hagel, who has faced persistent questions about his views on Iran, Israel and nuclear policy.
“The next secretary of defense will have to deal with a world on fire,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said before the vote, explaining his opposition.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said efforts to portray Hagel as a radical ideologue were off base, and he pushed back on Republican demands for more information about the nominee, including additional details about his finances.
“Despite efforts of some to portray him as outside the mainstream of American foreign policy, Senator Hagel has received broad support from a wide array of senior statesmen and defense and foreign policy organizations,” Levin said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declined to heed calls for a walkout, which some Republicans had advocated, but did not mince words in expressing how unimpressed he was by Hagel as he voted against his former colleague.
“His performance before this committee was the worst I have seen of any nominee for office,” he said, complaining that Hagel had failed to agree with McCain’s view that the 2009 troop surge in Iraq had been a strategic success. “Senator Hagel’s judgment was wrong, continues to be wrong.”
In explaining their support, some Democrats invoked the importance of deferring to a president’s Cabinet picks. Several said they were hopeful that Hagel’s experience as an enlisted soldier during the Vietnam War gave him a valuable perspective. But none offered a ringing endorsement.
“I think we owe deference to a president for choices to executive positions,” Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) said. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said she had confidence in Hagel but wished he had been “much feistier” during his confirmation hearing.
Republicans used the eight minutes each got to speak before the vote to continue to challenge Hagel’s bid to lead the Pentagon during a time of steep budget cuts, a waning war in Afghanistan and a flurry of national security threats around the globe.
“We saw with his nomination something truly extraordinary, which is the government of Iran formally and publicly praising the nomination of a defense secretary,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said. Cruz said that having Hagel at the helm of the Pentagon would make “military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely” because it could “only encourage the nation of Iran to continue and accelerate its program to develop nuclear weapons capacity.”