Denying decorated war hero and foreign policy luminary Chuck Hagel the Pentagon’s top job will be a daunting task for his opponents.
But Republicans are spoiling for a fight against President Obama over the nomination of the former GOP senator for secretary of defense. If their early hostility matures into a broad party line, Hagel’s prospects for confirmation could hinge on the Democrats who have so far declined to endorse the heterodox Nebraskan for the key cabinet post.
It’s exceedingly rare for the Senate to reject a presidential nominee to a cabinet position. The last candidate that happened to was President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 nominee for the Pentagon, John Tower — although, a critical difference there was that the opposite party controlled the Senate. It’s somewhat less rare — though still uncommon — for a president to withdraw a cabinet nominee and is usually due to a scandal. The most recent two were Obama’s nominee for HHS secretary in 2009, Tom Daschle, and before that George W. Bush’s nominee for Department of Homeland Security, Bernard Kerik, in 2004.
No scandal is weighing down Hagel. The opposition to him arises from a mix of motivations: strong disagreement with his dissent against the prevailing D.C. consensus on how best to approach foreign policy toward Israel and Iran, lingering resentments from former GOP colleagues over his aloof independence, and a resistance to giving Obama full credit for nominating a Republican. There are also some muted Democratic misgivings about his anti-gay slur from 1998 about the ambassadorial nominee James Hormel, for which he recently apologized.
Republicans who voiced their distaste for the choice include Sens. John McCain (AZ), John Cornyn (TX), Lindsey Graham (SC), Ted Cruz (TX) and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Although a handful of Democrats endorsed him immediately — including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W) — others were noncommittal.
Chief among them was Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the No. 3 Democrat.
“Chuck Hagel, as a former colleague and a patriot with a decorated service record, has earned the right to nothing less than a full and fair process in the Senate,” Schumer said in a statement. “I look forward to fully studying his record and exploring his views.”
Freshman Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly gay senator, promised to question Hagel on his offensive remarks from 1998 deriding a Clinton diplomatic nominee as “openly, aggressively gay” — comments that he has disavowed while angling for the job.
“I do want to speak with him particularly about his comments 14 years ago to see if his apology is sincere and sufficient,” she said on MSNBC.
Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (MI), Richard Blumenthal (CT), Mazie Hironi (HI) also issued statements praising Hagel’s service but withholding judgment on whether he deserves the job. Other Democratic senators refrained from commenting on his nomination Monday. Multiple Democratic aides declined to discuss how they’ll approach the matter. No Senate Democrats are outright opposing Hagel, and there’s no evidence at this point that any of them are prepared to go against the White House on such an important cabinet position.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.