Washington, DC – In what has turned out to be one of the most contentious confirmation fights in history, a vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become the next Secretary of Defense was blocked by Republicans on the Senate floor today. Only four Republicans voted to procede with the vote, leaving Hagel one vote shy of the 60 vote margin necessary. The unprecedented fillibuster will mean that the nomination will have to be revisted after the Senate returns from a week-long adjournment for President’s Day; a vote has been scheduled for February 26th.
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 31st to answer questions about his record. He faced strenuous opposition from members of his own party, including former Senate colleagues, over his opposition to war with Iran and skepticism about the effectiveness of sanctions against the country, as well as his remarks about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on the Senate.
These issues have been highlighted in an aggressive campaign against Hagel carried out by groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel and bankrolled by individuals including megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Hagel’s nomination has in turn has been supported by a number of high-profile national security figures, including top former officials from Republican and Democratic administrations, retired military brass, and a host of former U.S. diplomats.
In Tuesday’s Armed Services debate, Republican Senators cited various reasons for their decision to vote against Mr. Hagel’s nomination, including what many viewed as a lackluster performance during his hearing and accusations that he is not tough enough on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel. Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) had postponed the vote amid demands by Republican Senators that Mr. Hagel submit texts of private speeches he has made and disclose the financial dealings of private companies he is associated with. Ultimately the vote went forward and the committee approved the nomination, but no Republicans voted in favor.
Hagel faced criticism for opposing a 2007 Senate push to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Hagel said he was concerned the measure would have provided the Bush Administration with the legal justification to launch a war with Iran without further Congressional approval, highlighting that many of his colleagues in the Senate also opposed the measure on the similar grounds. He attempted to explain that such a designation is typically reserved for non-state actors and that Iran is already labeled under the appropriate mechanism as a “State Sponsor of Terror.” But his opponents pounced on his inartful use of the term “legitimate” to describe the Iranian government, a term which Hagel quickly backed away from and clarified was only intended to indicate Iran is a “recognized” state actor.
Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted during the committee vote that many senators had voted against the IRGC designation, including his predecessor Jim Webb, who gave an impassioned speech against the amendment. According to Kaine, “there was a potentially perilous consequence to designating a department of a government as a terrorist organization, and that doing so could in fact lead to an executive over-reach, one could be seen as a preliminary step toward hostilities or war-like activities without the appropriate consultation with congress.”
Despite repeatedly endorsing the President’s policy of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Hagel’s opponents seized on Hagel’s statement that he “supported the President’s policy of containment.” Hagel later clarified his statement, but his opponents heralded it as proof that Hagel was not committed to military action against Iran.
Senator Angus King (I-ME), said that it seemed critics of Hagel were exploiting what amounted to a “slip of the tongue” by Hagel in the midst of a grueling questioning. “I’m not sure how the rest of us would have done in a nine-hour hearing, it was a pretty long day,” he said.
Democratic Senators cited Mr. Hagel’s extensive experience in both the public and private sectors, his military service as an enlisted soldier, as well as his long list of references – including the support of two former chairmen of the Senate Armed Services committee, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner, who accompanied him at the confirmation hearing – as their main reasons for supporting his nomination.
Echoing Senator Levin’s words, many of the senators said they believed Chuck Hagel understood America’s role in the world, and that as the next Secretary of Defense he would “give the President unvarnished advice with integrity.”
Hagel is known for his independent streak and as someone who cautions against overreliance on American military power. He told the panel at his confirmation hearing that “America must engage – not retreat – in the world.” He explained his belief that a powerful country must be able to talk to other nations, without feeling that doing so would mean caving in or having to always agree with others. “Unless we talk to and engage other countries, we won’t know what’s really going on.”