Chuck Hagel on Thursday defended his 12-year record as a Republican senator from Nebraska, while he vowed to maintain a muscular American military that wouldn't hesitate in the face of the country's biggest threats.
Kicking off the biggest confirmation battle of President Barack Obama's second term, Hagel -- the nominee to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of defense -- told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he'd confront Iran and would target terrorist organizations in hot spots like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
The former senator vowed to continue the transition out of Afghanistan, build alliances overseas while modernizing the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons. He raised grave concerns over budget cuts to the Pentagon, while he endorsed the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" prohibition against openly gay service members. And he endorsed Panetta's decision allowing female soldiers to fight on the front lines of combat.
But on top of everything else, Hagel said, he shouldn't be judged by any single vote, of which he's cast more than 3,000, or any one comment, given that he's delivered hundreds of speeches. Because, he insisted, he's been consistent behind the view the country should maintain the toughest defense in the world.
"But no one individual vote, no one individual quote, or no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record," Hagel said in a calm, measured tone. "My overall worldview has never changed: that America has and must maintain the strongest military in the world; that we must lead the international community to confront threats and challenges together; and that we must use all tools of American power to protect our citizens and our interests."
Hagel's shifting views on a variety of issues -- including over Israel, Iranian sanctions, attitudes toward gay Americans and opposition to the Iraq war surge -- are expected to be the targets of aggressive questioning during his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.
"I never voted against Israel in my 12 years in the Senate," Hagel said.
At the onset of the hearing, Chairman Carl Levin pressed him about his past votes opposing unilateral sanctions on Iran, but Hagel said those were made under different circumstances. Hagel argued that he's fully on board with the president's support of tougher sanctions now.
"It was a different time," Hagel said. "We were at a different place with Iran. It was never a question of, did I disagree with the objective [of sanctions]."
How Hagel performs will help determine whether he wins swift approval from the Armed Services committee, and whether he can solidify Democratic support and win over enough Republicans to break a potential filibuster on the Senate floor. Of Armed Services' 26 senators, 11 have made their positions on Hagel clear: six solidly favor his confirmation, and five solidly oppose him. Others are non-committal.
"Those of us who have served with Sen. Hagel in the Senate know that he is a man who is not afraid to speak his mind," Levin said at hearing's start.
While ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has come out strongly against Hagel, former ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been non-committal even though he's been sharply critical of his old friend and former colleague. Similarly, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has steered clear of commitments. And while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has had many negative things to say about Hagel, he hasn't explicitly committed to opposing him.
Inhofe, ranking member of the committee, said that Hagel is a "good man with a record of service," referring to his record as a decorated war veteran in Vietnam.
But he criticized Hagel for "a recent trend of policy reversals based on political expediency rather than core beliefs," and renewed his opposition to his nomination.
"His record demonstrates what I view as a lack of sound judgment and steadfast support for policies that diminish U.S. power and influence throughout the world," Inhofe said.
Inhofe pushed his former colleague to explain why the Iranian foreign ministry "so strongly" backed his nomination to be secretary of defense.
"I have a difficult enough time with American politics, senator," Hagel said. "I have no idea."
On the Democratic side, Levin has praised Hagel, as has Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Hagel also has the support of Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a longtime friend and one of the first to defend his nomination.
Republican letters and memos, written both to Hagel and for public release, predict certain themes the nominee is likely to field before the committee.
The panel's members will likely ask whether the former Nebraska senator supports unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran; whether he favors urging the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization; and whether he wants the United States to unilaterally and dramatically reduce its nuclear arsenal. Hagel said "many times" he's stated throughout his career that he considered Hezbollah a terrorist group.
Hagel was immediately pressed on his thoughts regarding sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in March that will hit the Pentagon hard.
"Make no mistake, this is not an exaggeration ... when managers are not given the flexibility and the opportunity and tools to manage with complete certainty as to what's ahead, that's a disaster," he said.
Hagel's confirmation hearing could be the last step in sealing his nomination -- or it could provoke more controversy. Conservative groups are hungry to see Hagel's demise, predicting that the hearing would lead to a wave of opposition.
"After the hearing, we expect an increasing number of senators in both parties to oppose his nomination. As this process unfolds, AFF will reach out to the public in a diverse range of states to make sure that Sen. Hagel cannot bring his dangerous pattern of ethical scandals and mismanagement to the Department of Defense," said Nick Ryan, the founder of the American Future Fund, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing Hagel's nomination.
Questions from both Republicans and Democrats have swirled around Hagel's nomination ever since his name was floated in December as a possible nominee.
So far, none of Hagel's answers have proven to be fatal. To bolster his case, Hagel is engaging in a marathon of one-on-one meetings with senators -- more than 30 just last week.
Since he was mentioned as a top candidate for the position, Hagel has publicly apologized for criticizing former U.S. ambassador James Hormel as "openly aggressively gay" in 1998. Hormel has since endorsed him. Hagel said he supports the service of openly gay members of the military.
Public disclosure of Hagel's finances has yielded nothing particularly controversial: the former senator has millions in assets, and he has pledged to divest from his holdings in Chevron, for example, upon his appointment as secretary of defense.
And while conservative groups continue to slam Hagel's prior positions on Israel, the former Republican senator has privately expressed regret for previous remarks about the "Jewish lobby" and laid out more publicly his commitment to Israel's security.
Hagel has also hardened his position on Iranian sanctions, which he has previously opposed, shifting to support current administration policy.
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