Bruising confirmation fight could weaken Hagel in top Pentagon job

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) may survive a bruising confirmation battle in the Senate, but the fight will leave him in a weakened position trying to sell the Pentagon’s agenda to Congress.

President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon was subjected to a harsh eight-hour grilling at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he faced a barrage of attacks Thursday from most Republicans on the panel.

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It’s the same committee that will work closely with the next Defense secretary on a number of pressing issues, from sequestration and budget cuts to the drawdown in Afghanistan.

Defense analysts and congressional aides say that Hagel’s rough confirmation hearing and a near party-line vote that’s expected on the Senate floor will sap what little political capital he may have had heading into the top Pentagon job.

One GOP aide knowledgeable in defense issues said that Republican uneasiness over Hagel would make it much tougher to him reach deals over controversial issues in defense legislation than Obama’s first two Defense secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

“You need a strong, tough secretary of Defense to push back when he’s right, and not cave when he faces tough questions,” said the aide. “With a guy like Hagel, you don’t know that a deal you cut in the room is the deal you’ve got when he leaves. With Gates, and Panetta, at least you knew that.”

Many Defense secretaries have had a contentious relationship with Congress — Gates is a good example. But Gates and others were still successful with because they could strong-arm controversial items through Congress when needed, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

“On the Republican side, it isn’t about the actual number of votes, it’s about the perception that Sen. Hagel is unsure, unsteady and unprepared for the hearing, and possibly for the job,” Eaglen said.

“He lost political capital that will absolutely hurt him in the job, capital that he’s going to need almost immediately in dealing with sequester and the 2014 budget request that will have a host of controversial items in it for Congress.”

Hagel’s confirmation fight has been the most contentious for a Defense secretary nominee since the Senate defeated former Sen. John Tower’s confirmation in 1989. National Security confirmations for State and Defense posts are typically more like former Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.), who was confirmed last week in a 96-3 vote.

One Democratic official said the tough confirmation process wouldn’t stop Hagel from being a strong Defense secretary.

“The way some of the Republicans behaved yesterday I think has the potential to hurt them much more than it does Chuck Hagel,” the official said. “He wants to work with Congress and he will, but it was hard to see yesterday how they’d want to work with him when they wouldn’t even let him answer basic questions.”

Hagel has done plenty of outreach in the Senate, and he has more one-on-one meetings planned with senators next week. An administration official working on Hagel’s confirmation said that Hagel expects to have sat down with more than 70 senators by the end of next week.

The former Nebraska senator was known for his independent streak during his two-terms in the Senate, and he angered many in his party with his vocal criticism of the George W. Bush administration over the Iraq war.

That policy dispute drove a wedge between Hagel and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had the most heated exchange with Hagel over the surge at Thursday’s hearing.

Hagel has also ruffled feathers since he left the Senate by endorsing Democrats, including the 2012 opponent of freshman Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

On the House side, Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) issue a statement Thursday saying he opposed Hagel’s confirmation.

While Hagel faces a sea of “no” votes from Senate Republicans, his confirmation still looks likely because no Democrats appear to wavering against him, and they have a 55-45 advantage in the Senate.

If Hagel doesn’t lose any Democrats, Republicans would need to take the unprecedented step of filibustering a national security Cabinet nominee, something no Republican senator has threatened to do yet.

An aide to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate who was one of the first to oppose Hagel, said that “all options are on the table,” when asked about a potential filibuster.

Five Republicans have said they were “no” votes on Hagel since his hearing began Thursday, bringing the total number of Republicans opposed to 12. A handful more have indicated they are highly likely to vote against Hagel.

One Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), has said he will support Hagel’s confirmation.

Seventeen Democrats had said they were backing Hagel as of Friday afternoon. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration expected Hagel to be confirmed, and senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Friday was "no question" the White House had secured more than 50 votes.

Carney took aim at some of the Republicans questions of Hagel at Friday’s press briefing, accusing them of “badgering” the nominee.

“Somewhat bizarrely, given that we have 66,000 Americans in uniform in Afghanistan, senators yesterday, in a hearing for the nomination of a secretary of Defense, asked very few questions about that active war,” Carney said. “Instead, they wanted to re-litigate the past.”

The list of who has said they are voting for or against Hagel’s confirmation:

YES

1. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)*

2. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

3. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)*

4. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

5. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

6. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)

7. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

8. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

9. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)*

10. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)

11. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)*

12. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

13. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)*

14. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)*

15. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)*

16. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)*

17. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)

18. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)



NO

1. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)

2. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)*

3. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)*

4. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)*

5. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

6. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.)*

7. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)

8. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)

9. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)

10. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)*

11. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)

12. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)


* = Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will vote on Hagel first