Armed Services Committee Sends Hagel Nomination to Senate After Two Hours of Histrionics

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) confers with a staff member as the Senate Armed Services Committee meets to vote on the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense on Capitol Hill February 12, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

One short month ago, reporters were musing that “as many as 10 Democrats” (NBC’s Chuck Todd) could vote against Chuck Hagel’s nomination to run the Department of Defense. “Every business day that the Senate Armed Services Committee doesn’t vote to send the nomination to the full Senate,” wrote Tom Ricks four days ago, “I think the likelihood of Hagel becoming defense secretary declines by about 2 percent.” (It says something about the theater inspired by this nomination that Politico wrote a full story on this theory, based on Ricks writing it and Bill Kristol linking to it.)

But the Armed Services Committee sent Hagel’s nomination to the full Senate by a 14-11 vote, with all Democrats voting “aye” and confirmed “no” David Vitter unable to be there. So it was basically 14-12, but Plan A for thwarting Hagel had failed.

It was at least employed in the most dramatic fashion. Democrats stuck to a theme: Hagel had botched up the hearings, but he was basically a decent guy. And a veteran! Don’t forget that he’s a veteran! When Hagel referred to the administration’s “containment” of Iran, then walked it back, it was a mere gaffe.

“We all know that the president’s policy on containment is that it’s not an option,” said newly elected Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. “I think a fair reading of that discussion is that he knows what the president’s policy was.”

“It was less than a stellar performance,” shrugged Sen. Joe Manchin. “If we were all judged on less than stellar performances, would we be senators today?

One Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessons, let Hagel off the hook on that gaffe. “My honest opinion is that it was just a misspeaking,” he said. But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who’d forced the stumble, rated it highly among the reasons to oppose Hagel. Sen. John McCain repeated—twice, actually—that Hagel’s wrongness about the 2007 Iraq surge basically disqualified him.

But other Republicans criticized Hagel so sharply that McCain would rebuke them. Sen. Vitter accused Hagel of dishonesty for not providing every post-Senate speech he’d given to the committee. “We have found six outside speeches,” he said. “Five of those we’ve just recently gotten text or video.”

Sen. Carl Levin, the increasingly fed-up chairman of the committee, repeated what he’d written in a Friday letter to senators. The requirement was only for formal speeches. “Your document will be accepted for the record, that’s it,” he said. “He didn’t remember those speeches. He’s not trying to hide those speeches.”

That was the light criticism. Sen. Ted Cruz repeatedly asked whether Hagel might have received, and hidden, funding from “paid speeches for extreme or radical groups.” He didn’t name which groups might quality, but Hagel opponents have made a controversy out of a speech Hagel gave to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, citing (among other things) the fact that the ADC co-sponsored an Anti-Iraq War rally where a Hezbollah defender spoke. Levin, even more exasperatedly, told Cruz that Hagel had pre-declared that he’d received no foreign funding. “His answers could be entirely truthful,” admitted Cruz—but he wanted to see the proof anyway.

Sen. James Inhofe, who’s now the committee’s ranking member, twice brought up the fact that the Iranian Foreign Ministry had endorsed Hagel. During his January 31 hearing, Hagel was so put out by the accusation (it’s true, but what kind of standard is “a group you don’t endorse endorsed you”?) that he restated it, sarcastically. “I guess I’m endorsed by Iran!”

The sarcasm wound up in an Emergency Committee for Israel ad. But when the charge was repeated at the committee level, it raised hackles. McCain re-emerged to condemn the tone of the day, saying that no one should question Hagel’s “integrity.” Inhofe was unmoved. People were offended when he said Hagel was cozy with Iran? “He’s endorsed by them. You can’t get any cozier than that.”