WASHINGTON – A key Senate panel voted along party lines Tuesday to recommend the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, sending his nomination to the full Senate despite opposition from Republican senators over his stances on Iran, Iraq and Israel.
The Senate Armed Services Committee vote puts Hagel’s ultimate confirmation in potential peril when it reaches the Senate floor as early as today. While he likely would gain the simple majority of 51 Senate votes needed, he’ll need to pick up at least five Republican votes to reach 60 if his opponents put up procedural barriers.
The committee voted 14-11 to approve President Barack Obama’s nomination of Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, with all Democrats on the panel backing him and all but one Republican opposing him. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana didn’t vote.
“Despite efforts to portray him as outside the mainstream of American foreign policy, Sen. Hagel has received broad support from a wide array of senior statesmen and defense and foreign policy organizations,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan.
Levin and other Democrats cited the introduction of Hagel at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing by former Sens. John Warner and Sam Nunn, both of whom once led the armed services panel, with Warner going on to become defense secretary.
The staunch opposition to Hagel from Senate Republicans sets up an unusual scenario in which a former senator is assailed by senators from his own party, many of whom served with him before his 2009 retirement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina noted that he voted for Democratic Sen. John Kerry to become secretary of state despite policy differences, but he could not support Hagel.
“The reason I’m voting against Sen. Hagel is his record when it comes to Iran and Israel,” Graham said. “There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many things.”
Other Republican senators piled on, accusing Hagel of being soft on Iran and hard on Israel. They noted his past votes against Iranian sanctions and his previous criticism of Israeli settlement policies.
In an odd twist, Democrats came to the Republican Hagel’s defense.
“President Obama was re-elected,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. “Some people might not like it, but he has selected (in Hagel) an honorable veteran who has served our country in various capacities, including this body.”