The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) voted along party lines Tuesday to send the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense secretary to the floor of the Senate, paving the way for a potential showdown over the embattled nominee.
The contentious 14 to 11 party line vote in SASC immediately spurred accusations that Senate Democrats had forced the vote despite growing Republican concern over Hagel’s lack of financial transparency. Sen. David Vitter (R., La.) was not present during the vote.
Republican critics allege that Democrats flouted normal procedure by refusing to permit senators enough time to fully vet Hagel, who has come under scrutiny for failing to disclose financial entanglements he may have had with foreign governments, including Turkey, Iran, and Kazakhstan, among others.
"I’m really concerned about process," Vitter said during remarks before the committee prior to the vote. "This committee vote and this nomination is being rushed. We’re being asked to vote and required to vote before all reasonable request for information has been received."
Vitter said that he has outstanding concerns about Hagel’s financial records and copies of speeches he has made over the last five years.
Other GOP lawmakers reiterated their concerns about Hagel during their remarks.
"His performance before this committee was the worst of any nominee I’ve seen for office," said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) "I cannot vote to report out Sen. Hagel’s nomination favorably."
McCain criticized Hagel’s "unfocused" performance before the committee last month.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R., S.C.) said that Hagel is too far outside of the mainstream to be assume such a sensitive government posting.
"At the end of the day it’s … a series of votes and statements that paint an unusually disturbing picture," Graham said. "He’s in a league of his own guys. There’s nobody with this series of votes and this series of statements."
"There’s an edge about him that makes some of us very unnerved," Graham said. "There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many different things."
Sources close to the committee condemned the way SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D., Mich.) handled the nomination.
Vocal Hagel opponent Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) "thought there would be more time for members’ concerns to be addressed," Donelle Harder, Inhofe’s communications director, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Because of that he supports any member’s decision to take necessary measure to get their concerns addressed."
That could include a Senate filibuster, which would force Democrats to reach a 60-vote threshold in order to allow a vote on Hagel’s nomination. It appears unlikely, however, that such a move could be sustained over a prolonged period of time.
Additionally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) has indicated that he would put a hold on Hagel’s nomination.
"Levin is ramming this [vote] through because the longer it takes to vote, the more pressure Hagel has to answer the questions about his finances," said one Senate source following the confirmation process.
"Unfortunately, the integrity of the committee and the confirmation process suffers as a result," the source said.
Vitter emphasized his concerns about the process Tuesday.
"One clear category of the normal precedent of what the committee asks is for speeches the nominee has made in the last five years," Vitter said, explaining that Hagel failed to provide the committee with multiple speeches.
"The biggest flag is that we have found six outside speeches that he never identified," Vitter said, demanding further documentation.
"That is squarely within the information the committee always requires," he said. "We’re just delayed because Sen. Hagel didn’t disclose it. We had to find it."
Levin rebuffed Vitter’s demands, however, arguing that Hagel had met the committee’s demands on this front.
In his opening remarks, Levin maintained that Hagel had sufficiently surmounted all ethical hurdles, including in terms of his financial disclosures. Levin also stated that Hagel has adequately addressed the committee’s concerns regarding his positions regarding Iran and Israel.
"The defeat of this nomination will leave the department of defense leaderless" at a critical juncture, Levin said. "The president needs a secretary of defense whom he trusts."
A full vote in the Senate would provide Republicans a forum to express their reservations about Hagel, who faced pitched criticism from observers even before the White House formally announced his nomination.
Hagel’s failure to disclose compensation he may have received from foreign governments for speeches and other work will likely be a point of contention.
"Hagel has possibly been awash in foreign money since leaving the Senate, getting paid directly and indirectly by the very people he’ll be dealing with and maybe even selling arms to [as the Pentagon chief]," said one source close to the confirmation process. "How is that information not relevant?"
Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) also criticized what he described as Hagel’s lack of transparency.
"Twice, Sen. Hagel has been asked to provide additional financial disclosures," Cruz said. "He flatly refused."
"Right now, this committee knows absolutely nothing about the personal compensation Chuck Hagel received," Cruz said. "We do not know, for example, if he received compensation for giving paid speeches to extreme or radical groups."
"The only reasonable inference is that when they assembled it [Hagel’s financial information], there was something in there they did not want to make public," Cruz added.
Democrats firmly lined up behind Hagel in recent weeks after the White House launched a behind-the-scenes charm offensive aimed at shoring up support for the nominee, who struggled to cogently answer many questions during his confirmation hearing last month.
"This is a sad day for America, a sad day for democratic allies," said one Washington-based foreign policy official. "Chuck Hagel is the most extreme, out-of-the-mainstream nominee for secretary of defense in history. Senate Democrats know it and are too afraid of Obama to say it."
"History will be unkind to those who allowed this to move forward," the source said.
A vote in the Senate on Hagel’s nomination could take place as soon as Wednesday.
All 55 Senate Democrats are likely to vote in favor of Hagel along with Republican Sens. Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.), both of whom have publicly endorsed the nominee.
"While I am grateful for former Senator Chuck Hagel’s service as a soldier in Vietnam and as a U.S. Senator, I cannot support hisnomination to be the next Secretary of Defense," said Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) after the committee held its vote.