Hagel plays waiting game as White House sits on nomination

President Obama's selection for Defense secretary remains in flux as his apparent first choice, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), has faced attacks on several fronts and lawmakers from both parties have balked at his nomination.

One prominent GOP senator said Friday he doubts that Hagel could be confirmed, and it's unclear whether the White House wants to take on what would be a difficult fight for his confirmation.

The monthlong assault and counter-assault over Hagel’s record on Israel, Iran and gay rights since Obama administration officials leaked Hagel as the favorite has left the former senator playing a waiting game while pundits and lawmakers sound off on his chances.

ADVERTISEMENT
Former Hagel aides say the process has allowed unfair attacks on his record to go unchallenged, but insist that the tide would turn if he were selected by Obama to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta has given no timetable for leaving the administration but has made clear he’d like to return to California.

“I think there’s a lot more inside-the-Beltway hysteria over concerns of the ability to confirm somebody like Hagel,” said one former aide. “A lot of the concerns stem from mischaracterizations of his record that can be very easily dismantled. A lot of this relates directly to being in limbo.”

While some pundits have said Hagel’s nomination now looks unlikely, The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons reported Friday a “senior Executive Branch” official told him Hagel remains very much on the list, and a final decision hasn’t been made.

The comment — which Clemons said was provided to him unsolicited — is the latest in a series of anonymous administration officials offering hints over Hagel. A report two weeks ago that he was the favorite sparked a flurry of lobbying activity.

Outside the Senate, pro-Israel groups led the charge against Hagel, including a cable TV ad from a group backed by The Weekly Standardfounder Bill Kristol.

Some Republican lawmakers in the Senate have also raised concerns about their former colleague, such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has said he would oppose Hagel. Cornyn told The Hill Friday he thought it was “doubtful” Hagel could be confirmed.

“I don’t support his nomination, and I hope the president doesn’t nominate him. I think it would be a contentious nomination on both sides of the aisle,” Cornyn said.

“His position on Israel, negotiating with Hamas, military cuts — it’s pretty much a laundry list of things that would undermine the Department of Defense’s mission,” Cornyn said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who will become the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year, said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” last week he was opposed to Hagel.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) accused Hagel of being to the left of Obama on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, while Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to comment on his former colleague in the same interview.

Graham wouldn’t say Friday whether he thought Hagel could be confirmed, but said that there were concerns in the Senate that were “wide and deep” over his policies.

Several lawmakers, including Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Carl Levin (Mich.) and moderate outgoing Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), have defended Hagel. They say he’s more than qualified to take the Pentagon’s top spot.

Feinstein told The Hill Friday that she believes the Senate would confirm Hagel.

“I believe that he is confirmable, if given half a chance,” Feinstein said. “I think these advanced announcements are very tough because he doesn’t have the ability to come back.”

Critics of Hagel have focused on his policies toward Israel, attacking him for supporting engagement with Hamas and Iran and for saying the “Jewish lobby” intimidated people in Washington.

Hagel has also faced criticism for a comment in 1998 when he called then ambassadorial nominee James Hormel “openly aggressively gay.” The Human Rights Campaign put out a statement against Hagel, and this week the Log Cabin Republicans took out a New York Times ad opposing his nomination.

Hagel apologized last week for the remark, which prompted Hormel — who was eventually appointed to become U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg — to say that he supported Hagel’s nomination.

“Senator Hagel stated in his remarks that he was willing to support open military service and LGBT military families,” Hormel wrote on his Facebook page. “If that is a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination.”

If Hagel is nominated, the biggest fight appears to be over his positions on Israel and Iran. Another prickly issue could arise from Hagel’s breaking with his party to oppose the Iraq war during President George W. Bush’s second term.

While there’s been concerted opposition against Hagel, many senior officials have come to his defense, including groups of retired admirals and generals and several former U.S. ambassadors to Israel.

Whether the president actually picks Hagel could depend on the White House’s appetite for a fight over the nomination. The Obama administration may not want to spend the political capital to win Hagel’s confirmation battle, particularly with other nominees — Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy are considered the other short-list candidates — readily available.

But after losing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice as a possible secretary of State choice, the White House may not want to back down on another choice for the president’s national security team.

“I think that Sen. Hagel and a lot of people were surprised and taken off guard by the venom and the velocity of the attacks,” said Alan Elsner of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group that supports Hagel’s nomination.

“Right now, I think that the debate is kind of irrelevant because it’s all down to President Obama,” Elsner said. “We have no doubt that Sen. Hagel would be confirmed if he was nominated.”