President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have fiercely defended the nomination of Chuck Hagel, despite advisers and Hill Democrats who questioned the move and predicted a firestorm, according to Democratic sources.
That opinion was validated, at least for the moment, by events Thursday as Senate Republicans narrowly blocked cloture on Hagel's nomination. Obama immediately slammed the filibuster -- which could be broken after a 10-day congressional recess.
But an irked Obama is dead set on installing his pick at the Pentagon -- even though the bitter battle over his confirmation is likely to leave lasting scars on his nominee at a time of looming military cuts and dangerous new developments in Iran and North Korea.
"We've never had a secretary of defense filibustered before ... there are only a handful of instances in which there's been any kind of filibuster of anybody," the president said during a Google+ chat after the Senate vote.
"My expectation and hope is that Chuck Hagel ... will be confirmed as our defense secretary," he said. "It's just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I'm presiding over [a war in Afghanistan].
Senior White House officials predicted that a battered Hagel would manage to limp over the finish line and take the job of defense secretary later this month. But others pointed to the cost after weeks of absorbing criticism about his previous statements on Israel, his personal finances and unanswered questions about Obama's personal response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
"It's going to put him in a difficult position once he gets there," said Bill Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. "I'm sure there will be some lingering discontent on the part of some on the Hill. That, however, speaks to the process we're talking about. ... Those resentments will weigh around. I don't think everyone will say, 'We've put you through the wringer, now forget about it.'"
"I think it's tragic what's happening, and I think it's shameful," said Cohen, part of a group of ex-officials backing Hagel's nomination.
"The big picture here is the Pentagon is not going to have much protection from outside political forces during the second Obama administration," said defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "Hagel has alienated so many people in his own Republican Party that reaching across the aisle would be a challenge. ... It raises questions about whether he will be able to implement any major changes at the Pentagon, given how narrow his base of support on the Hill seems to be."
The White House seems to have underestimated the intensity of the opposition that Hagel would run into in the Senate, despite aggressive efforts by pro-Israel activists to telegraph concerns about the former Nebraska senator's views on Mideast issues and "the Jewish lobby" -- a term he now says he regrets using.
And Hagel did himself no favors with his lackluster, unfocused, gaffe-prone performance at his Jan. 31 nomination hearing.
The whole episode seems unnecessary, raising the question of why Hagel was selected in the first place instead of well-respected Defense Department veterans Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter. Many Democrats would have gladly backed those choices and scratched their heads at the Hagel pick, particularly given the controversy it was certain to stir up.
But Hagel has fans in the highest places, starting in the Oval Office.
The president feels personally invested in the nomination of Hagel. The Nebraska Republican is one of the few politicians he's truly friendly with, and Obama plans to see the fight through, barring some major unforeseen development. Democrats close to the White House say the typically cool-headed Obama has expressed flashes of real anger at what he sees as a politically motivated GOP fishing expedition that already netted his first choice for secretary of state -- U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.
Obama -- ticked off by Rice's treatment and still emboldened by his convincing victory over Mitt Romney -- courted confrontation when he tapped Hagel. But he underestimated the level of vitriol generated by the appointment of the crusty Hagel -- and White House aides were genuinely stunned by the nominee's dazed and meandering confirmation hearing -- which they chalked up to his long sabbatical from public life and overpreparation for the session.
Cohen said the perceived linkage between Rice's nomination and Hagel's makes it even more important for the White House to rally behind Hagel. "I think the White House, at this point, really has to reaffirm its support. If it gets rolled on this one, it will be two in a row and will undermine the White House's credibility on future appointees," Cohen observed.
The rough ride Senate Republicans have given Hagel, their former colleague, seems to have only reinforced Obama's desire to add the iconoclastic Nebraska Republican to his team.
Obama "did like Hagel's contrarian views on Iran and on defense spending," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "He was willing to live with Hagel's weaknesses. Perhaps even more to the point, he see some of them not as weaknesses at all but as perceived weaknesses that made him a lightning rod for unwarranted and unreasonable political attack. In that sense, Hagel's 'weaknesses,' if anything, further strengthened the president's desire to nominate him. ... And the Susan Rice experience only reinforced this line of thinking."
If anything, Biden is even more emotionally invested than Obama in Hagel, a buddy and frequent travelling companion from their days together in the Senate. Biden was one of the strongest advocates for Hagel's appointment, pushing for him over the objections of several Obama staffers who believed Hagel to be an overly provocative choice. On Thursday, the vice president was working the phones with a vengeance, imploring moderate Republicans -- including Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) -- to vote for cloture.
"Sen. Hagel is going to be confirmed, if not tomorrow then when the Senate returns from recess," an administration official said confidently on Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official faulted Senate Republicans for linking Hagel's confirmation to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
"This is nothing but a pointless delay and the latest attempt to play politics on Benghazi. Chuck Hagel had nothing to do with Benghazi," the aide said.
Senior Republicans told POLITICO late Thursday that there was a strong possibility that as many as "15 or 20" Senate Republicans would, in fact, vote for an end to debate after the recess -- but none would vote yes before the break. Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Democrats that the GOP didn't want to set the precedent of using procedural means to block a defense nominee, even if many of his members planned to vote against their former colleague.
Republicans -- many of them never close to the senator when he served -- were even more taken aback, although at least one top GOP senator told his staff that Hagel seemed more poised and better prepared during his round of "off the record" one-on-one chats with senators.
"Well," one GOP aide joked, adding Hagel "couldn't have done any worse" than he did during his narcoleptic performance at the hearings.
Obama aides say the president tapped Hagel because he's unafraid of sacred cows and will be willing to shake up Pentagon orthodoxy when warranted. But Thompson says Hagel's polarizing confirmation process raises doubts about whether he'll have the power base to undertake significant reforms.
"It looks like Hagel can't give Obama what Bill Cohen gave Clinton," Thompson said. "Republicans are not as supportive of defense as they used to be and having Hagel in charge is certainly not going to reinforce their affinity for defense. ... The big political question for Hagel's tenure at the Pentagon is whether he can build a bridge to the Republicans or whether he will be so miffed by his treatment at the confirmation hearing that he in some way tries to take revenge."
During Obama's first term, Washington heavyweights Robert Gates and Leon Panetta were able to run interference on the Hill and sometimes at the White House to ward off meddling that the Pentagon viewed as unwelcome. Republicans welcomed Gates as a Bush holdover and the Senate essentially approved Panetta by acclamation, voting 100-0 to confirm.
Perhaps Obama wants a defense secretary who's not going to win a popularity contest in Congress.
Assuming Hagel wins confirmation, he clearly won't be taking office with the degree of congressional support either of his predecessors had.
"The Pentagon has enjoyed considerable protection during the first Obama administration," Thompson said. "Now, it looks highly exposed to changing political currents."
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