President Obama formally nominated Republican Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, to be the next United States Secretary of Defense earlier this afternoon. At the end of the press conference the President stated that “I hope the Senate will act on these nominations promptly. When it comes to national security, we don’t like to leave gaps.” An increasing number of Senate Republicans, including Lindsay Graham and Ted Cruz, have been publicly voicing their discontent with Hagel, mainly due to his supposed “anti-Israel” comments, criticism of Bush-era policies including the Iraq War, and his views on Iran that they deem as not hawkish enough.
While many Senate Republicans have been openly critical, dismissive, or outright opposed to Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary, the position of Senate Democrats ranges tremendously. Many Senate Democrats came out in strong support of Hagel today, including Senators Patrick Leahy, Jack Reed, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin. However, there are still many Senate Democrats who have concerns about Hagel’s past comments regarding the LGBT community and his views on Israel. Among the ten Senate Democrats that Chuck Todd mentioned this morning who might oppose and vote against Chuck Hagel, two of them are NJ’s very own Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez. Hagel will need to get at least 50 votes in the Senate (in a 50-50 tie Vice President Biden would break it by voting for Hagel) which means that, at most, 5 members of the Senate Democratic caucus (including Senators King and Sanders) could vote against Hagel (if the entire Senate Republican caucus also voted against him).
It would appear that Menendez’s main concerns are with Hagel’s comments regarding Iran. Menendez, who will most likely be the next Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been fairly hawkish in his views towards Iran while Hagel has made it known that he favored direct negotiations with Iran instead of unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran. Menendez will probably also voice some concerns about Hagel’s statements regarding Israel. Senator Lautenberg has stated that “There are tough questions to be answered, and I look forward to hearing answers directly from Senator Hagel.” Interestingly, Alan Steinberg wrote a piece in PolitickerNJ a few weeks ago where he stated that:
“For New Jersey’s two Democratic Senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, the prospect of Obama’s nomination of Hagel poses a most acute dilemma.
There is no question that both Lautenberg and Menendez have records of solid, consistent support for Israel. In the case of Frank Lautenberg, he also has been a major benefactor of good works in Israel, including hospitals and public parks. Prior to his election as United States Senator, he served as the national chair of United Jewish Appeal.
Yet both would face serious difficulties in defying the Obama White House on a Hagel nomination.
President Obama’s nomination of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State clears the way for Bob Menendez to become the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is no small matter for such a chair to refuse to support confirmation of a Defense Secretary nominated by a president of the same political party.
For Frank Lautenberg, there is another dimension to the dilemma. If he accedes to the Obama White House request for support of the Hagel nomination, he may well face serious criticism from Newark Mayor Cory Booker on this issue in a 2014 Democratic Senate primary battle. Booker also has a strong relationship with the New Jersey Jewish community, and he could use the incumbent senator’s vote for Hagel as a means to diminish the Lautenberg Jewish vote in the primary.
Obama is about to begin his second term, and now he feels no political constraints in making cabinet appointments. He will feel free to play hardball to achieve his objectives, even if it means threatening to reduce federal funding for New Jersey projects in order to coerce Lautenberg and Menendez to support a Hagel nomination.
I have no doubt that both Senators Lautenberg and Menendez are hoping and praying that President Barack Obama changes his mind and does not nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.”
First off, I think that criticizing Israel’s policies does not make someone inherently “anti-Israel” and I resent Steinberg’s statement that “One would be hard pressed to find a U.S. Senator more hostile to Israel than Chuck Hagel.” Hagel is an independent maverick who opposed many Bush-era policies regarding the War in Iraq, torture, and indefinite detention. Hagel’s past statements regarding an openly gay Ambassador are indefensible but he has since apologized for those statements and should not be denied the top Defense post over it. His views on direct negotiations with Iran is a sensible one that shouldn’t be grounds for complete dismissal and voting against him. Direct diplomacy with hostile nations is actually an idea proposed by then-Senator Obama on the 2008 campaign trail and it would be a positive direction to head in. Hagel is not a conventional politician and appears to be genuinely independent and qualified to be Defense Secretary. He would be the first Defense Secretary to have been enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces and he will be an advocate for our troops, their families, and our veterans.
Let me be clear that Hagel has a questionable voting record in his 12 years in the U.S. Senate ranging from supporting the initial Patriot Act to voting for all of the Bush tax cuts and his views on other social and economic issues. However, I think that Hagel would be well-positioned to serve in the unique role of Defense Secretary. He has the background and demeanor to criticize military leaders in the Pentagon over military strategy and policy and offer insight and leadership in ending the War in Afghanistan responsibly.
While political and policy concerns exist for both Senators Lautenberg and Menendez over Hagel’s nomination I hope that they support and vote in favor of Chuck Hagel to be America’s 24th U.S. Secretary of Defense.