After his rough Senate hearing, Chuck Hagel gets a boost from backers

His confirmation hearing performance was universally described as 'lackluster' at best – and far worse by many accounts. But Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel got some support Sunday, including another Republican backer in the Senate.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday.
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After a confirmation hearing performance universally described as “lackluster” at best – and far worse by many accounts – Defense Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel may be feeling marginally better today.

He’s picked up two Republican backers in the Senate. There’s no sign – yet, anyway – that any Republicans intend to filibuster the nomination, which would be highly unusual. And the Pentagon’s top two officials – outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey – voiced their support for Hagel on the Sunday TV talk shows.

"In my contacts with the senator, Senator Hagel, in his preparations, I found him to be very thoughtful and very well prepared and very interested,” Gen. Dempsey said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And so if he's confirmed, I'm sure that we'll establish a very close working relationship.”

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A former Democratic congressman before heading the CIA and then the Defense Department in the Obama administration, Mr. Panetta took a more political line.

"It's pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel," Panetta said on NBC’s "Meet the Press."

"What disappointed me is that ... they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today?" he asked. "What about the war ... in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequestering [automatic budget cuts] – what impact it's going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber-attacks?"

"All of the issues that confront a secretary of defense, frankly … we just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues," Panetta said.

THE MONITOR'S VIEW: With Hagel at Defense, what would be America's 'special role'?

Still, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on “Meet the Press,” “The disconcerting thing for anybody that watched [Hagel’s confirmation hearing] is he seemed unimpressive and unprepared on the questions that quite frankly he knew was coming.”

Many Republican critics have been flogging Hagel for his past comments on the pro-Israel lobby’s influence on Congress and on Iran – issues that have a close connection.

But the line of inquiry that got the most attention was over the “surge” in Iraq, specifically Sen. John McCain’s sharp assertion that Hagel was “on the wrong side of history” in opposing the surge – and earlier than that, the former Nebraska Senator’s eventual opposition to the Iraq war itself.

To some observers, McCain’s attack on his one-time close friend and fellow Vietnam combat veteran seemed unnecessarily personal, focusing on an issue that most lawmakers (and most Americans) have gotten past regarding an unpopular war.

“This was a vanity thing for John McCain to try to prove to a former friend who disagreed with him that he was right on the surge and Chuck Hagel was wrong,” said Gibbs.

Writing in the American Prospect, Steve Ericson asserts that Sen. McCain has “allowed temperament, pique and ego to steamroll the judgment and perspective that we hope all of our elected officers have.” It’s the kind of charge made periodically over the years – including by the George W. Bush presidential campaign in 2000 – about McCain’s personality and temper, undoubtedly influenced by the captivity and torture he endured in North Vietnam.

But in the end, refighting the Iraq war and its surge (or the Vietnam War) is unlikely to determine whether or not Hagel – who’d become the first former enlisted man to become Defense Secretary – moves to the Pentagon.

More important may be the Republican votes he picks up, although those aren’t essential in a Senate that’s mostly Democratic.

Over the weekend, Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska joined fellow Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi in announcing his vote for Hagel.

"Chuck earned this endorsement," Sen. Johanns told the Lincoln [Nebraska] Journal Star.

Johanns said he received all the assurances he needed during a private one-hour meeting with Hagel that "he will stand side by side with our allies, be firm with our enemies and use good judgment" as secretary of defense, the newspaper reported.

"He was absolutely clear that he will be a strong defender of Israel, and that's very important to me," Johanns said. "He was absolutely clear that he believes the use of force must remain on the table as an option against Iran, and that's the position we must maintain."

THE MONITOR'S VIEW: With Hagel at Defense, what would be America's 'special role'?

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