If Chuck Hagel was expecting a warm and congenial welcome from his former Senate colleagues today, he was badly mistaken.
Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska and President Obama’s nominee to be Secretary of Defense, was peppered with pointed questions from both Republicans and Democrats during day one of a contentious Senate hearing From the start, the hearing had the feel of an inquisition. Very few softballs were tossed his way, and at times the questioning was downright hostile – especially from a fellow Vietnam veteran and someone he once called a friend, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
The hearing was so heated that Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, later apologized to Hagel for the chamber’s tone and demeanor. While it still appears that Hagel will eventually become Defense Secretary, the road to the post is long and winding. Here are six takeaways from today’s dramatic hearing.
1. Sequestration took a back seat. The impending spending cuts were mentioned, but just in passing. Hagel did say that he opposed the sequestration cuts and that if sworn in as defense chief he would work to avoid the process. But the issue clearly took a back seat to Hagel’s judgment about the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq and his insights on U.S. nuclear strategy and on Iran and Israel.
2. Sequestration, or the process to avoid it, is going to be a mess. Both Hagel and lawmakers repeatedly said that sequestration was the wrong path to go down, while offering little in the way of an alternative path forward. During the hearing on Thursday it was clear that Democrats and Republicans were far apart on spending and revenue priorities. Getting lawmakers to compromise will would be messy, and some lawmakers seemed resigned to the idea that sequestration is inevitable--thus the Pentagon will potentially be in disarray.
3. Virtually every other issue took a back seat to Israel. Hagel’s past remarks about Israel came back to haunt him. All the Republicans and some of the Democrats blasted Hagel for using the term “Jewish lobby” in the past. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham was especially incensed over the comments, telling the nominee that it sent “chills down my spine.” Hagel repeatedly said he regretted his choice of words, but on this issue, at least, he came off as defensive and not terribly sincere.
4. Republicans gave him no favor. If Hagel thought the Republicans on the Senate Armed Services committee would go easy on him because he’s a member of their party, he was sorely mistaken. Arizona Republican John McCain started his questioning by noting his friendship with Hagel – but then began to berate him about his opposition to the 2007 Iraq surge, which Hagel had earlier described as “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
After Sen. Lindsey Graham went after Hagel on his comments about Israel, the senator blasted him for refusing to sign a letter acknowledging Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Freshman Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite, then piled on, airing an interview in which Hagel used some unfortunate language when discussing Israel.
5. Hagel is an outsider. During his twelve years as a senator from Nebraska, Hagel was never one to toe the party line purely out of loyalty. He often voted in ways that were unpopular in his caucus. This independent streak is precisely why Obama picked him: As the Pentagon transitions to a leaner organization, Hagel is going to have to make some politically unpopular decisions. But operating outside the Beltway’s insider culture can be difficult and trying for people like Hagel who don’t embrace the political game.
6. Cyber warfare is a priority. The issue of cyber security was mentioned numerous times, including in Hagel’s opening statement. Among other things, Hagel said the U.S. needs to continue “to invest in and build the tools to assist in that fight [against terrorism], such as special operations forces and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies. And it will mean working hand-in-hand with our partners across the national security and intelligence communities, to confront these and other threats, especially the emerging threat of cyber warfare.” A number of senators also mentioned the importance of bolstering cyber warfare efforts. It’s not clear what form these additional efforts will take – but the issue is clearly top of mind on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon.