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The Senate voted along party lines on a stormy Tuesday evening to confirm the embattled former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as the nation’s next secretary of defense, capping a turbulent months-long battle over the nominee’s controversial past.
Opposition to Hagel mounted even before his formal nomination by the White House and reached a fevered pitch following a widely panned confirmation-hearing performance in which the nominee struggled to answer basic foreign policy questions.
Many of Hagel’s most vociferous Republican critics voted in favor of ending a filibuster of the nomination earlier in the day, a pivotal first vote that paved the way for the former senator to win final approval.
Republican failure to stand united against Hagel irked some senior GOP officials on Capitol Hill.
“History will be unkind to those who stood by Chuck Hagel in the face of indisputable facts about his record and in so doing put politics over America's national security,” one senior Senate aide who was close to the confirmation process told the Washington Free Beacon in the hours before Hagel was confirmed.
Eighteen Republicans in total voted to end debate on Hagel’s nomination and proceed to a final vote, which required a simple majority for approval rather than the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster.
They included: Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John McCain (Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), and John Thune (S.D.).
These Republican votes came despite warnings from the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), who had told his colleagues in a letter sent last week that they would be held accountable if they voted in favor of cloture.
Other Republicans maintained their opposition to Hagel during an early afternoon debate on the nominee’s fate.
“There’s simply no way to sugar coat it: Senator Hagel’s performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was remarkably inept, and we should not be installing a defense secretary who is obviously not qualified for the job and who holds dangerously misguided views on some of the most important issues facing national security policy for our country,” Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said Tuesday afternoon on the Senate floor. “Sen. Hagel is clearly the wrong man for the job.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) also held firm in his opposition to a nominee that many have labeled anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.
“Sen. Hagel’s past views and statements place him far outside the bipartisan mainstream on key issues like Iran sanctions, European designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group and the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Kirk said in a statement.
“During his confirmation hearing, Sen. Hagel instinctively called the Iranian government both elected and legitimate,” Kirk said. “He initially offered strong support for containment of Iran, rather than President Obama's stated policy of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. He could not clearly explain his past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran.”
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) broke with his fellow Republicans to vote in favor of Hagel.
Hagel faced months of scrutiny for making several controversial statements about Israel, Iran, the American Jewish community, and terrorism. He also faced questions about what senators labeled his failure to disclose pertinent financial information, including ties he might have to foreign governments.
Hagel’s past comments about Israel had proven most problematic.
Hagel declined to sign multiple letters of support for the Jewish state and even balked when presented with opportunities to condemn Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium near levels needed to produce a nuclear weapon during his 12-year tenure in the Senate.
Hagel has also been vocal in his opposition to the so-called “Jewish lobby,” which he claimed in a 2010 interview “intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill.
Hagel reportedly said during a separate meeting with pro-Israel activists: “I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”
Hagel also has faced backlash from the Jewish community for his efforts to close a popular USO port in the Israeli city of Haifa during his stint as president and CEO of the World USO in the late 1980s.
Hagel maintained during a combative 1989 meeting with Jewish officials that the American-Jewish community should pay for the port.
“He said to me, ‘Let the Jews pay for it’,” Marsha Halteman, director for military and law enforcement programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), told the Washington Free Beacon in January.
Hagel also is said to have suggested during a 2007 speech that U.S. Department of State was an adjunct of the Israeli foreign minister’s office, the Free Beacon reported earlier this month.
He is later believed to have said during a 2010 speech that Israel is on its way to becoming an apartheid state.
Even Hagel’s most prominent backers have cast the opposition to Hagel as purely a “Jewish” matter.
A group of anti-Israel activists and journalists coordinated a campaign to stifle criticism of Hagel by attacking the former senator’s Jewish critics, the Free Beacon reported in January after obtaining an email chain sent between Hagel’s defenders.
It additionally came to light that Hagel had long been embedded in a network of pro-Iran groups that later became his most vocal champions.
As a member of the board of anti-nuclear group Ploughshares Fund, Hagel helped direct more than $2 million in grants to organizations that employ some of his most outspoken advocates, many of whom favor lifting sanctions on Iran, oppose military action against its nuclear program, and hope to weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Additionally, Hagel has faced criticism for sitting on the board of a bank that is under investigation for allegedly violating United States sanctions on Iran.
Hagel appeared particularly confused about the Obama administration’s current policy regarding Iran during his combative confirmation hearing, a performance that received poor reviews from many liberals as well as conservatives.
Hagel flubbed the administration’s policy when he expressed support for Obama’s “position on containment” of Iran’s nuclear program, a position that the administration does not have.
Hagel was forced to correct himself two times on the issue.
“I was just handed a note that I misspoke that I said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that I meant to say that we don’t have a position on containment,” he said during the hearing.
In fact, the administration’s position, as current Secretary of State John Kerry stated during his own confirmation, is one of prevention.
Hagel also claimed Iran has an “elected, legitimate government,” a comment that raised eyebrows on both sides of the political aisle.
Republicans accused Hagel of misrepresenting his views on nuclear cuts as well as his association with the Global Zero initiative during the hearing.
Hagel’s support for looming cuts to the defense budget has also elicited concern among supporters of a robust national security.
“The Defense Department, I think in many ways has been bloated,” Hagel told the Financial Times in 2011. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time.”
Hagel has also opposed job creation at the Pentagon.
“Our Defense Department budget, it is not a jobs program,” he stated in 2011. “It’s not an economic development program for my state or any district.”
Defense insiders who have worked alongside Hagel raised multiple concerns about his ability to effectively manage the Pentagon.
Hagel is known to have a short temper and is prone to yell at staffers, the Free Beacon reported in December.
“Chuck Hagel may have been collegial to his Senate colleagues but he was the Cornhusker wears Prada to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq, told the Free Beacon.
“As a manager, he was angry, accusatory, petulant,” added another source familiar with Hagel’s work on Capitol Hill. “He couldn’t keep his staff.”
Hagel had attempted to walk back most of his past comments during the confirmation process and has even apologized for his previous stances during meetings with lawmakers and Jewish community figures.
Hagel reportedly cried while apologizing for some of his past comments during a meeting with Jewish Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).