Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings for the Defense Secretary job are underway -- and they're likely to be contentious. Here's Chuck Todd's guide to the key controversies.
With former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings with the Senate Armed Services Committee underway deciding whether he will become President Obama’s next secretary of defense, The Daily Rundown’s Chuck Todd on Thursday outlined the contention in the lead-up to his potential confirmation and any roadblocks ahead.
With Schumer’s backing, confirmation looks likely
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who was the key voice in determining the fate of Hagel’s confirmation, earlier this month said he backed the former Nebraska senator after once having “genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran.” But earning some face time with Hagel, Schumer said the nominee made a “crystal-clear promise” to do “whatever it takes” to ensure Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.
“He said his ‘top priority’ as secretary of defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran. He added that he has already received a briefing from the Pentagon on this topic,” Schumer said of Hagel in a statement.
Still, some Republicans not on board
By Todd’s calculations, Hagel has 56 Senate votes lined up to ensure a confirmation, but not a majority to overcome chances of a filibuster. Seven Republicans, including Sens. Jim Inhofe, David Vitter, Roger Wicker, Tom Coburn, Pat Roberts and Dan Coats, have all said they would not vote for Hagel. And Sen. Lindsey Graham went as far as to say he would block Hagel’s nomination over lingering questions on the Benghazi attacks from September.
“The one thing I’m not going to do is vote on a new secretary of defense until the old Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who I like very much, testifies about what happened in Benghazi,” Graham said. “I’m going to block Hagel from going forward until he does.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who has taken lead in attacks against Hagel, repeatedly voiced his opposition to Hagel’s nomination to lead the Pentagon.
“It’s clear that Chuck Hagel left the Republican party when he endorsed President Obama in 2008 but this isn’t about politics, this isn’t about personalities,” Cornyn told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “This is about being wrong on the principal national security issues that confront our country today and his lack of suitability for being the head of our national security apparatus at the Pentagon.” He has gone on to publicly denounce Hagel on the Senate floor, questioning whether he has “done damage to the United State’s credibility in its attempt to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.”
Hagel cast as “anti-Israel”
Many neo-conservatives in and around Washington have been on the attack to discredit Hagel’s nomination, particularly over his stance on Israel and Iran. The brunt of opposition zeroed in on Hagel’s comments from 2008 on the “Jewish lobby” that “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. “I”m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator,” he had added.
In the 112-page questionnaire Hagel filled out prior to meeting before the Armed Services Committee on Thursday, he reassured the committee that he would not be soft on Iran. “If Iran continues to flout its international obligations, it should continue to face severe and growing consequences,” Hagel wrote. “While there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing.”
“Openly aggressively gay” comments
The former Nebraska senator’s off-the-cuff remarks continued to damage his image in the lead-up to the confirmation hearings particularly with his stance on gay rights. In 1998, Hagel said a U.S. ambassador nominee’s sexual orientation was an “inhibiting factor” that would prevent his ability to do an “effective job” because he was “openly aggressively gay.“
Hagel has since apologized for his “insensitive” remarks. And in his questionnaire filled out for Armed Services Committee, Hagel walked back his comments with an about face to gay rights. “I fully support gay and lesbian men and women serving openly in the U.S. military and am committed to a full implementation of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he wrote.
Super PACs out to stonewall confirmation
The post-Citizens United era influence of big money if filtering into politics beyond just the election season. According to a study out by the watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation, super PAC spending on negative advertising hit at least $123,000 to block Hagel’s confirmation. Big spenders—including groups Americans for a Strong Defense, American Future Fund, and Emergency Committee for Israel—have spent thousands in efforts to cast Hagel as anti-Isreal and soft on Iran.