Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel’s confirmation fight in the Senate is not only about the issues. It’s also a bit personal.
Congressional aides say that lurking underneath Republican opposition to his positions on Iran, Israel and defense spending is a dislike for how the former senator from Nebraska spoke to staffers and embraced his role as President George W. Bush’s top Republican critic from 2006 to 2008.
“No one on the Republican side likes him,” a Republican congressional aide told The Washington Times. “Many senators are being polite by not blasting him right away, but there is no way he will get their support at confirmation time.”
Mr. Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled for Thursday.
Toward the end of his final term, Mr. Hagel formed an alliance in the Senate with Barack Obama, Joseph R. Biden and Sen. John F. Kerry, and chastised Mr. Bush on an array of foreign-policy issues.
Prompted by a reporter for The Washington Post at a public event, Mr. Hagel judged Mr. Bush to be a worse president than Herbert Hoover, who often is blamed for worsening the Great Depression.
As his criticisms intensified, so did Mr. Hagel’s popularity with the liberal news media.
But his standing has sunk among the Senate Republican caucus to the point where Republicans predict Mr. Hagel will get few, if any, of their votes at confirmation time. Former Rep. Leon E. Panetta, a Democrat, won unanimous Senate confirmation for defense secretary in 2011.
In recent days, Republican comments have become more caustic.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi met with Mr. Hagel this month, then called the nominee’s explanation of his voting record on Iran sanctions irresponsible.
“I am deeply concerned that in the span of one week, Sen. Hagel’s views on Iran sanctions have changed multiple times based on public reaction and criticism of his record,” Mr. Wicker said. “I appreciate Sen. Hagel’s record of military service, but it is difficult to understand where he stands on many important issues due to constantly changing positions. Saying anything to anyone just to get confirmed is irresponsible and does a disservice to our armed forces and to the entire country.”
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, describes Mr. Hagel as an “old friend.” Yet he scoffed at Mr. Hagel’s 2007 Senate floor speech calling the just-started Iraq troop surge one of the biggest blunders in U.S. military history.
“That is a bizarre statement,” Mr. McCain told Politico.
Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that he found “troubling and insulting” Mr. Hagel’s reference to backers of Israel as the “Jewish lobby” that intimidates Congress.
Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, has suggested that Mr. Hagel may lack the temperament to run the world’s biggest office building and manage its 24,000 employees.
“I think another thing that’s going to come up is just his overall temperament, and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Mr. Corker said Jan. 13 on ABC News’ “This Week.” “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them. I have certainly questions about a lot of things.”
The Washington Times, in a report last week about the worst bosses in Congress, said Mr. Hagel ranked second in staff turnover among senators, just behind former Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican. In 2005, nearly half of Mr. Hagel’s 51 staffers quit.
“He was ‘The Cornhusker wears Prada’ to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers’ desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin told the Washington Free Beacon about Mr. Hagel.
What appears to be widespread Republican opposition is not enough to stop Mr. Hagel’s confirmation.
No Democrat from the Senate majority has voiced opposition, meaning Mr. Hagel, who arrived in Washington as a staunch conservative Republican, would win the Pentagon job thanks to liberal Democrats.
“He was widely perceived as a lone wolf, and don’t believe there is that sense of fraternity among those who served with him that you normally get for a Senate nominee,” said James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Hagel has plenty of defenders on Capitol Hill and at the Atlantic Council think tank, where he serves as chairman.
“I think he brings some unique quality to this job,” Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said on “This Week” when asked about the nominee’s temperament. “He is someone who’s been involved in issues of national security as a United States senator. But I think one thing that’s terribly compelling — and it goes to his credibility with the forces — he’s been a combat soldier. He’s fought. He has literally walked in their boots.”
Brent Scowcroft, an Atlantic Council colleague and national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, said: “Sen. Hagel is one of the most well-respected and thoughtful voices on both foreign and domestic policy.”
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