By Jeremy Herb - 02/12/13 10:00 AM EST
The bitter political fight over former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Defense secretary has pit the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee against each other, threatening the panel’s bipartisan reputation.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) have battled heartily over the nomination and other contentious issues ever since Inhofe took over the reigns as the panel’s top Republican earlier this year.
Levin wrote in a stern letter that the GOP demands went “far beyond” what had been asked of previous nominees.
Levin’s position has appeared to harden as he has fought with Inhofe and watched other members of the panel — particularly newcomer Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — rip into Hagel during a confirmation hearing.
The Michigan Democrat, who has been his party’s senior member of the Armed Services panel for nearly two decades, is now pushing forward with a committee vote on Hagel on Tuesday.
The Armed Services panels in both the House and Senate frequently tout their bipartisan reputation, noting that leadership from both parties on the committee have worked together to approve defense authorization acts for 51 straight years.
The panel’s oversight of military issues lends it to working in a bipartisan manner, although the committee has dealt with plenty of contentious issues in recent years, including the torture debate, the Iraq war and the repeal of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Levin acknowledged to The Hill that things have been more contentious this year, but said that he didn’t believe it would distract the panel when it gets to work on the defense authorization bill.
“They’ve been more contentious than a typical hearing, but I don’t know if that represents a shift,” Levin told The Hill. “I’m not able to determine that, and I’m not particularly interested in determining that. Because whatever it is, we’ll work together.”
A senior GOP committee aide said that Inhofe is not looking to drive a partisan wedge between Democrats and Republicans on the committee, but that he is standing by his principles over a controversial nominee.
“It’s never been the intention that the committee would look like it’s losing its apolitical stance, but when you’re dealing with such contentious issues it can cause some rifts,” the aide said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said more fights are breaking out on the panel because of the issues confronting it, which include Hagel’s nomination and last year’s terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“It’s the subject matter,” Graham told The Hill. “I love Carl Levin, he’s one of my dearest friends, but I was stunned how many Democrats really didn’t ask anything about Benghazi. ... I can only imagine if this had been the Bush administration.”
A hearing on Benghazi last week featured sharp questioning of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey — and accusations of a White House cover-up — that Levin described afterward as “overheated.”
“I think the tone of the questioning during the Benghazi hearing underscored for everyone involved how political this committee is becoming, different than it ever has been before,” said one Democratic official.
Part of the new tension on the Armed Services panel is simply representative of the increasingly partisan atmosphere that has overtaken all of Congress and is still left over from the 2012 elections.
The Hagel fight has driven the biggest wedge between Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
The eight-hour hearing began with former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a past Armed Services chairman, praising Hagel, but ended with Democrats complaining about the Republicans’ line of questioning.
Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) were visibly unhappy as Cruz replayed footage of Hagel answering viewer questions on al Jazeera and displayed signs typically reserved for the Senate floor.
“I feel like I want to apologize for some of the tone and demeanor today,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told Hagel toward the end of the hearing.
Levin had a good relationship with the committee’s previous ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who stepped aside for Inhofe this year due to term limits.
But Levin and Inhofe appear to have started off their work together on the panel with a strained relationship.
Levin had hoped to hold a committee vote on Hagel last week, but opted not to after Republicans on the panel made new demands. Explaining his decision to reporters, Levin stopped just short of blaming Inhofe for the delay.
“The ranking member said he’ll do everything he can to stop the nomination,” Levin said. “So I take this as one of the things that he’s doing to try to stop the nomination.”