The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 Tuesday to approve former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary after a lengthy meeting that featured sharp exchanges about compensation the nominee has received for speaking engagements.
The party-line vote sends Hagel’s (R-Neb.) nomination to the floor for a vote by the entire Senate this week.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Hagel had failed to disclose funding sources that he has received, and that the committee had no way to know “if he received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups.”
Cruz also said that if Hagel is confirmed, he believed “it will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely.”
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) pushed Levin to delay the vote because of past speeches by Hagel that have been uncovered in recent days.
Levin rejected the requests from both senators.
Levin told Vitter that unless Hagel had misled the committee by intentionally omitting speeches from his disclosures that the nomination would proceed.
“This could go on forever,” Levin said.
Vitter subsequently missed the vote.
Levin told Cruz that he could seek to change the committee rules at another time, but that the panel was not going to apply different rules to one nominee.
“We are not going to accept your suggestion or innuendo that there is some kind of a conflict of interest here, because there is no conflict of interest here,” Levin told Cruz.
When Cruz continued to press Levin on Hagel’s disclosures, the chairman cut him off and responded: “If you come up with any evidence, you can supply that to us that he is not answering these questions honestly.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that Cruz had “gone over the line.”
“He has basically impugned the patriotism of the nominee ... about him being in essence cozy with Iran,” Nelson said.
When Nelson finished speaking, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the panel’s ranking Republican, backed up Cruz’s criticisms of Hagel, saying that Nelson was accusing Cruz of impugning Hagel’s character for “implying that Chuck Hagel was cozy with terrorist-type countries, referring to Iran.”
“I’d say he’s endorsed by them — you can’t get any cozier than that,” Inhofe said.
Levin shot back in defense of Hagel, saying that he’d “been endorsed by people I disagreed with totally.”
“I don’t want people who hate me to ruin my career by endorsing me,” he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s former ranking member, tried to lower the temperature before the committee continued the meeting. “Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. He has served his country, and no one on this committee in any context should impugn his character or his integrity,” McCain said.
Both Inhofe and Levin said afterward that despite the tensions in the hearing, they didn’t think any bitterness would linger for the committee — which prides itself on its bipartisan reputation.
“I’m not worried about the tone of this debate. It obviously was a very strongly felt issue,” Levin said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier on Tuesday told reporters that he would not honor holds from senators on Hagel, and that he would push forward with a vote on the floor this week.
Inhofe had vowed to force Hagel to win at least 60 votes on the Senate floor to win confirmation. Reid’s move means Inhofe — or any other senator who wants to block Hagel’s nomination by using a filibuster — will have to object on the floor to do so.
A filibuster of Hagel’s nomination would be the first ever for a Defense secretary nominee.
Only two Republicans, Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Mike Johanns (Neb.), have said they will vote in favor of Hagel so far, but not all Republicans are on board with Inhofe’s filibuster plan, meaning Hagel will likely be able to reach 60 votes. McCain told reporters Monday he was urging his Republican colleagues not to filibuster and set a “bad precedent.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that he was opposed to a filibuster, but complained that the Democrats were “jamming the vote” on Hagel.
“Our caucus believes they’re jamming this through,” Graham told reporters Tuesday. “There are too many unanswered questions.”
Reid said Monday that he expected the nomination to come to the floor either Wednesday or Thursday. The Senate is not in session next week.
The Tuesday committee vote comes after Levin delayed a vote that he’d hoped to hold last week. Levin decided against the vote when Republicans demanded more financial information from organizations affiliated with Hagel.
Inhofe said he admired Hagel’s service, but once again laid out his concerns about the nominee’s views on Iran, Israel and nuclear weapons as the reasons why he opposed his confirmation.
In saying he would vote against Hagel, McCain blasted Hagel’s responses in his confirmation hearing on the Iraq surge, when he declined to say whether he was wrong to oppose it.
McCain said he agreed with Robert Gibbs, former adviser to President Obama, that Hagel’s confirmation performance was the “most unimpressive and unfocused that he had ever observed.”
Nevertheless, both Inhofe and McCain said they supported Levin’s decision to schedule Tuesday’s committee vote.
Levin defended Hagel and his record ahead of Tuesday’s committee vote, saying that senators should not oppose Hagel because they oppose the president’s foreign policy.
“Some members of this committee strongly oppose President Obama’s foreign policy,” Levin said. “But regardless how we may feel about the president’s policies, however, our vote on Sen. Hagel’s nomination will not change those policies.”
Levin also cited the latest North Korean nuclear test as a reason the Pentagon should not be “leaderless.”
“A delay in adopting this nomination and approving it will send the exact wrong message to North Korea,” Levin said.
Hagel’s confirmation would be almost surely confirmed in an up-or-down vote, as no Democrats have said they are opposed to him and Democrats have a 55-45 majority in the Senate.
— Published at 1:13 p.m and updated at 8:36 p.m.