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Veteran Dems Expected to Shepherd Hagel's Nomination

Veteran Dems Expected to Shepherd Hagel's Nomination

By Erin McPike - January 9, 2013

To shepherd Chuck Hagel through what looks to be a difficult confirmation process for secretary of defense, the White House is leaning largely on some of the old bulls of the Senate -- all Democrats.

Asked which Democrats, a top aide to Majority Leader Harry Reid said simply, “Jack Reed comes to mind.” A White House official, asked the same question by RCP, pointed to eight senators, seven of whom served with Republican Hagel when he represented Nebraska in the upper chamber.

In a statement Monday, Reed (whose name had also been floated as a potential successor to Leon Panetta at Defense), said: “Chuck Hagel will make an outstanding Secretary of Defense. He is highly qualified and his record of service to this country as a decorated combat veteran, successful CEO, senator, and statesman is extraordinary. Chuck is a man of uncommon independence and integrity.”

In addition to Reed, a three-term senator from Rhode Island, the Democrats mentioned by the White House include Michigan’s Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee; Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee; California’s Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence; and West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee and sits on the Intelligence and Veterans Affairs committees.

The White House also pointed to Reid and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, another member of the Intelligence Committee.

And the administration official cited Chris Murphy, the newly elected senator from Connecticut and a member of the Armed Services Committee, as one of the new lawmakers perhaps personally unfamiliar with Hagel but who will support his nomination.

On the other side of the aisle, top Senate aides have shrugged when asked which lawmakers might help their old colleague through the confirmation process -- an unsurprising reaction considering that a number of Republicans have come out against him already, citing his stances toward Israel (too tough) and Iran (too lax), among other complaints.

A top staffer to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked which members of his conference might stand up for Hagel, answered, “Actually don’t know.”

Another top Senate Republican official surmised: “He must have been a real pain in the ass to deal with, because no one seems to personally like him.”

McConnell expressed his own concerns on Sunday, saying the nominee -- at that time unannounced -- will have to understand the U.S. relationship with Israel, the Iranian threat and the importance of a strong military. Each issue has caused Republicans to grumble about President Obama’s choice.

Although Hagel served in the Republican conference under McConnell, the Kentucky senator said, “If Senator Hagel’s nominated, he’ll be subjected to the same kinds of review of his credentials as anyone else.”

A handful of GOP senators who were colleagues of Hagel’s have reserved judgment for the time being and could still support him.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, for one, noted his ties to Hagel in trying to delicately characterize his position on the nominee. “Chuck Hagel is a former Senate colleague from a neighboring state,” Thune said. “While I believe a president's selections to fill senior cabinet posts should be given a great degree of deference, I will be carefully scrutinizing Senator Hagel's past positions on Iran and Israel, among other important issues, before making a decision on his nomination.”

North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who served with Hagel for the nominee’s final four years in the Senate, said, “While I have concerns about the nominations made by the president [Monday], there is a process in place to address those concerns, and they will both have the opportunity to answer tough questions before the Senate.”

Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, who was a member of Republican leadership while Hagel was on Capitol Hill, echoed that stance.

But some Republicans wonder if Hagel will get a single affirmative vote from Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee, which will weigh his nomination. Already, three Republicans on the panel have said they will oppose him: Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, Louisiana’s David Vitter, and Texas’ Ted Cruz. Two other leading Republicans on the committee, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have been highly critical of the nominee.

Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia have not made their inclinations known, but are all staunch conservatives who served in the Senate with Hagel. Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Mike Lee of Utah and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire did not serve with him, but have expressed reservations about his qualifications.

Ayotte has become a leading force for the GOP on defense issues, and her growing opposition to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice when the president leaned toward nominating her as secretary of state was a significant setback. In this case, Ayotte has said, “While I deeply respect Senator Hagel’s brave service in Vietnam, I am concerned by several positions he took as a senator. . . . I will vigorously question him on these and other issues.” 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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