Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) delivered a shaky performance at his confirmation hearing to lead the Pentagon while enduring a difficult day of grilling by his former Republican colleagues.
Hagel stumbled over some answers — describing Iran as having a “legitimate, elected government” at one point — and did little to convert critics who have deemed him unfit to serve as Defense secretary because of his past statements and positions.
GOP senators showed up for a fight, ripping the former senator’s past statements, including his comment that the “Jewish lobby” intimidated people in Washington.
Hagel was frequently forced during a hearing that ran on for more than eight hours to say that he “regretted” his past statements, such as when Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) brought up Hagel’s statement that Israel kept Palestinians “caged up like animals.”
“If I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I’ve said, I would like to go back and change the words and the meaning,” Hagel said. “I regret that I used those words.”
The Republican National Committee touted a clip of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pressing Hagel to name one lawmaker that was intimidated by the “Jewish lobby.”
“Name one,” Graham said.
“I do not know,” Hagel responded.
Graham said after the hearing that was “shocked” that Hagel didn’t have responses to many of the questions coming from the GOP.
“I’m very reluctant to confirm somebody who I think is saying one thing one moment and something else [the next],” Graham said. “This is a pretty clear case of confirmation conversion.”
Hagel might have cost himself a few Republican votes with his performance, though he also didn't seem to lose any Democratic supporters. Two more Republicans said Thursday they were opposed to Hagel, as did House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who does not have a vote on his confirmation.
Since Democrats hold 55 seats in the Senate, that likely means only a GOP filibuster would prevent Hagel’s confirmation.
Graham said after questioning Hagel that he still wasn’t ready to take that step. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also declined to comment on a potential filibuster on Tuesday.
Levin said the confirmation vote in the Armed Services Committee could come as soon as Thursday, though that was still tentative. He did not have a timeline for the full Senate.
“I thought he did very well,” Levin said after the hearing concluded. I thought he was responvive. I thought he kept his cool.”
Hagel’s most heated exchange of the day came with a former friend and fellow Vietnam War veteran — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who pushed Hagel to admit he was wrong about the 2007 Iraq surge, which Hagel had predicted would be a blunder.
Hagel said that he would “defer to the judgment of history,” but McCain said that wasn’t good enough. “It’s direct question — I expect a direct answer,” McCain said.
“I’m not going to give you a yes or no, I think it’s far more complicated than that,” Hagel responded.
“Let the record to show he refused to answer that question,” McCain said, adding that it might negatively affect his ultimate vote on Hagel’s confirmation.
“I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it,” McCain told Hagel.
Despite his unhappiness over Hagel’s non-answer, McCain said he still hadn’t made up his mind on how he will vote.
Hagel took a subdued and deferential approach for much of the day, not fighting back against some of the criticisms being launched at him from his former Senate Republican colleagues.
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), set the tone, asking Hagel to verify — but not explain — his past statements on Israel, Hezbollah and Iran.
Inhofe, who has said he’s voting against Hagel, took a shot at him by asking why the Iranian Foreign Ministry supported Hagel.
In his second round of questions, Inhofe said one of the members thought his Iran question was “disrespectful,” and asked Hagel if he thought so, too.
“No, it’s a legitimate question,” Hagel responded
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took a rare step in the committee of playing videotape from an al-Jazeera show where Hagel answered viewer questions, and he used a poster board with a Hagel quote that’s usually reserved for the Senate floor.
Cruz attacked Hagel over what he said was Hagel’s failure to dispute a caller who suggested that Israel had committed war crimes.
Democrats generally sought to defend Hagel during the hearing, with Levin saying he thought Hagel had given a “strong performance.”
“I think he’s been asked tough questions, and I think he’s been giving very responsive answers — when he’s been allowed to give answers,” Levin told The Hill during a break, referring to several Republican lawmakers who had cut Hagel off when he tried to explain himself.
“I’d like to apologize for some of the tone and demeanor today,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who earlier said he wished he had served in the Senate alongside Hagel, given his willingness to cross party lines.
This story was posted at 5:40 p.m. and updated at 6:12 p.m.