The race is on to win over the Chuck Hagel fence-sitters.
Supporters of President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon say they’re encouraged that most of the Senate has yet to take a position on the former Republican senator’s confirmation.
“Dems will ultimately come around because it would look beyond terrible to have a wartime [Defense secretary] barely confirmed, and Obama will ask them to support this publicly and privately,” said one defense analyst who works closely with Congress.
The large number of uncommitted Republicans suggests the GOP isn’t marching lockstep against Hagel, as it appeared to be doing with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice’s possible nomination to the State Department.
Meanwhile, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has said it will not get involved. The group has noted it doesn’t take positions on presidential nominations.
Critics of Hagel say that it’s the White House that should be worried that Democrats are not embracing Hagel, pointing to the concerns raised by usually staunch allies like Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Schumer.
With most members of both parties keeping their powder dry, the lobbying campaign that began a month before Hagel was officially nominated is now ramping up.
Both pro- and anti-Hagel groups are plotting their strategies — to win over both the public and individual senators — for the weeks leading up to his high-profile confirmation hearing, which many lawmakers say will determine how they vote on Hagel.
“There’s no question it will heat up and build toward the committee hearing and the committee vote and beyond,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, one of the first groups to raise red flags about Hagel.
“You’ll see a number of different tactics involved from both sides,” he said. “I think you’ll see a big social media effort, and I think you may even see more ads in terms of engaging the general public.”
Hagel has been attacked for weeks over his 2006 statement that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates policymakers in Washington, and for supporting diplomacy with Iran and Hamas.
The former Nebraska senator also faced criticism from the left over comments he made in 1998 about a gay diplomat.
Both sides agree privately that the group of senators being watched most closely is that led by Schumer and Democrats who are hawkish on Iran and Israel.
Schumer has said that he is reserving judgment until Hagel’s confirmation hearings.
“It’s too early to tell” if Hagel will be confirmed, Schumer said in an interview this week with The Wall Street Journal. “I’m not going to take guesses like that until I sit down and talk to him.”
One Hagel backer close to the process said that the anti-Israel charges against Hagel are “just noise,” and that the “pure distortion of his record” will be corrected now that Hagel and the White House can defend it publicly.
Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Politics, said that once Hagel’s record is fully aired, senators like Schumer —the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate — will have no problem backing him.
“Obviously, if you are from New York, and you’ve got large numbers of your constituents who happen to be Jewish and support Israel, you don’t want to support someone who is anti-Semitic,” Korb said.
But some Democrats have been openly critical of Obama’s nominee, although none has yet indicated outright opposition.
During an MSNBC interview Tuesday, Cardin criticized Hagel’s stance on opposing unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran.
“The U.S. is looked upon internationally as the leader,” said Cardin, who compared the situation to sanctions against South Africa over apartheid. “I personally don’t understand why he felt that we should delay, allowing Iran to move more aggressively forward with its nuclear-weapons programs.”
A Senate GOP aide said the reaction to Hagel’s nomination Monday revealed there’s bipartisan opposition to putting Hagel in charge at the Pentagon.
“I don’t know how many friends Chuck Hagel has on the Hill. I think it’s pretty telling when Democratic senators are not rushing to endorse this guy,” the aide said.
Republicans, however, have yet to vow a filibuster against Hagel. Unless they unite against him, the nominee’s chances are good in a Senate where 55 members caucus on the Democratic side.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said Hagel will get a “fair hearing.”
Monday’s nomination set off a new phase in the Hagel lobbying fight, which began when his name was first leaked last month.
Before he was picked, pro-Israel groups attacked Hagel and released TV ads criticizing him on Israel and Iran in an attempt to dissuade Obama from picking him.
The Log Cabin Republicans, who support gay rights, also took out newspaper ads lobbying against Hagel.
“It’s hand-to-hand combat,” said one official working against Hagel’s confirmation.
The anti-Hagel official said that more TV ads could be coming like the one that the Emergency Committee on Israel released last month. That group, which includes Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol on its board, also purchased chuckhagel.com, which it’s using to criticize the former senator.
Hagel supporters had an informal campaign before he was selected, and groups of retired military officials and former ambassadors released letters stating their support for him.
The Bipartisan Group purchased ads in D.C. media, including The Washington Post, and hired the Podesta Group to help its campaign.
Outside groups are also staying involved, particularly online, where “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J-Street launched a new ad campaign: “Smear a bagel, not Chuck Hagel.”
Like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is staying on the sidelines.
“Sen. Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement Monday.