Math is on Hagel’s side in confirmation fight

Chris Moody

President Barack Obama's decision to name former Sen. Chuck Hagel to lead the Defense Department may have sparked a fury of noisy opposition and concern from both parties, but pending a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Nebraska Republican will likely make the cut.

Simply put, the math is on Hagel's side.

Democrats hold a 14-12 majority in the Armed Services Committee, which will conduct the confirmation hearings. Once he passes that threshold, he will need at least 60 votes of approval from his former colleagues in the Senate. Democrats control 55 seats in the chamber, meaning Obama must pick off only five Republicans to secure Hagel's appointment.

"That just doesn't seem like a tall order," a senior Senate Republican aide told Yahoo News.

Hagel will undoubtedly face a gantlet of criticism from members of the Armed Services Committee. Republicans are preparing to interrogate Hegel on controversial comments he made in the past about the United States' relationship to Israel and Iran's nuclear program.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has called Obama's choice of Hagel an "in your face" nomination, Graham, an Armed Services Committee member, is considered a likely "no" vote.

To be sure, securing all 55 Democratic votes is not yet a foregone conclusion. Before the lawmakers left Washington for recess last week, Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin appeared uncommitted, but open to being convinced.

Schumer and Gillibrand both expressed concern about Hagel's views on Israel and Iran. Baldwin, recently sworn in as the first openly gay member of the Senate, said she wondered if Hagel was sincere when he apologized for comments he made about a gay diplomat in 1998.

Hagel is expected to make a series of courtesy visits to senators on the fence about his nomination, particularly Republicans in an effort to bring at least five on his side.

If necessary, Obama could dispatch Vice President (and former Democratic senator) Joe Biden, who has proven a talent for delivering messages and negotiating with members of Congress in a way Obama severely lacks.

Biden would probably be happy to vouch for him, too. For years, Biden and Hagel shared a close relationship while serving together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The two visited northern Iraq in December 2002 and even shared a moment together when they called their mothers while driving through Turkey to the border of Kurdistan. In February 2008, Biden and Hagel were in a helicopter in Afghanistan that made an emergency landing during a snowstorm, an experience Biden later said brought them closer together.

"I have such a comfort zone with the guy," Biden said of Hagel in a 2008 interview with The Hill newspaper.

Whether Hagel needs Biden's help or not, he can rest comfortably knowing that it is rare for the Senate to reject a Cabinet nominee—particularly when the Senate is controlled by the president's own party.

A Democrat-controlled Senate rejected John Tower, a former Texas Republican senator who was President George H.W. Bush's nominee to be secretary of Defense. But other nominees who foundered generally did so before their nominations were put to a vote.

President Bill Clinton withdrew the nominations of Zoe Baird for attorney general, Anthony Lake for CIA director and Hershel Gober for deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs. President George W. Bush withdrew Linda Chavez's nomination for Labor secretary and Bernard Kerik's to head the Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, Obama withdrew the nomination of former Sen. Tom Daschle to lead Health and Human Services.