Hagel Not Withdrawing, Despite Renewed GOP Opposition

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

Chuck Hagel, known for his unswerving relentlessness both as a senator and as a soldier, plans to stand fast as President Obama’s nominee to head the Pentagon despite a growing GOP effort to defeat him with a rare filibuster, aides said. “He’s not withdrawing,” says Aaron Dowd, a spokesman for the former Nebraska senator. “He could be defeated, but he’s not withdrawing. It’s not something anyone is discussing.” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, in a brief interview Thursday, endorsed that view. “He’s our guy,” Vietor said.

Withdrawal at this stage, of course, would amount to a major political defeat for Obama, and so it remains unlikely. Nonetheless, Republicans who oppose Hagel -- who alienated his fellow Republicans by taking a stand against the Iraq invasion a decade ago, among other maverick positions -- seem to be newly confident that they can somehow derail his nomination with a filibuster that they’re not quite yet admitting is a filibuster. Senators such as Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are claiming they are holding up the confirmation because they want more information from the White House on Obama’s actions related to the 9/11 Benghazi attacks, which have nothing to do with Hagel.

That heartens the Hagel camp, which notes that the opposition to him has mostly to do with a lot of old history—primarily, the inability of many Republican senators to admit they might have gotten Iraq wrong—as well as a new insecurity among Republicans who are desperate for a winning issue. “A lot of this has nothing to do with him,” Dowd says.

Hagel supporters and aides also dismissed a Fox News report suggesting that the former senator had concealed two speeches in the background information he disclosed to the Senate for his nomination. “Neither of these events were formal speeches, and accordingly they were not included when the list was put together,” said an official working on the Hagel confirmation, who spoke on condition of anonymity as someone not designated to be a spokesperson. “If you look at the list provided, it includes a number of speeches on controversial topics, so it’s simply not true to suggest there was any attempt to hide anything. One event was at an academic institute -- Georgetown, a Jesuit university. The other was with an organization that combats discrimination and was founded by former Senator James Abourezk, who served in the Senate from South Dakota from 1973 until 1979.

In the not-so-proud tradition of Washington, Hagel is paying dearly not only for speaking his mind in the past but also for his prescience in defying his own president, George W. Bush, during the course of the decadelong “war on terror.” But Hagel only fed his opponents’ ambitions with a strikingly weak performance at his confirmation hearing, where he fumbled over several questions, including whether he supported “containment” against Iran.

And now Hagel faces the prospect of becoming the first Defense nominee in U.S. history to be filibustered. Should he overcome the 60-vote majority needed to end such a filibuster, he is all but assured of confirmation. The Democrats who control the Senate have 55 votes in favor, and two Republicans have said, up until now, that they will vote for Hagel: Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

But getting to 60 votes is looking harder right now than it did just a few days ago, especially with moderates such as Susan Collins, R-Maine, saying they oppose Hagel. And the longer the process plays out, the higher a political price the president will pay for sticking with Hagel.