WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided Senate panel Tuesday approved President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the nation’s defense secretary in a rancorous session at which Republicans questioned the former Republican senator’s truthfulness and challenged his patriotism.
On a party-line vote of 14-11, the Armed Services Committee voted to send the nomination to the full Senate, where Republicans have threatened to delay a vote on the president’s choice to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Democrats have the votes to confirm Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran and former two-term Nebraska senator, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would press ahead with a vote on the most divisive nominee of Obama’s second-term national security team.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said after the hearing that he was hopeful the Senate could confirm Hagel by week’s end.
Hagel has faced fierce opposition from Republicans who have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons, but the two-hour-plus session took an uncomfortable turn for some members of the traditionally bipartisan panel.
Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted that Hagel provide information on compensation for paid speeches over a five-year period — three years more than required — and suggested that without the information, the committee wouldn’t know whether Hagel got money from “extreme and radical groups.”
Cruz also suggested that Hagel’s unwillingness to cooperate indicated that he was being less than forthcoming with the panel about possible payments from foreign sources.
Hagel already had told the committee that during the past 10 years neither he nor his wife had received any compensation from or been involved in any business transactions with a foreign government or an entity controlled by a foreign government.
Cruz’s statement angered the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who rejected the notion of a different standard for Hagel than for other nominees and said he was “not going to accept your suggestion and innuendo.”
Another Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, accused Cruz over going over the line.
“You basically have impugned the patriotism of the nominee” with suggestions that he is cozy with Iran, Nelson said. “You also stated your opinion that you don’t think he’s truthful. Those are two fairly strong statements.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said reports about Iranian leaders praising Hagel’s nomination back up Cruz’s claim. “I’d say he’s endorsed by them. You can’t get any cozier than that,” the panel’s top Republican said.
It fell to Republican Sen. John McCain to offer the strongest defense of his onetime friend, political ally and fellow Vietnam veteran.
“Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. No one on this committee should impugn his character and integrity,” said the Arizona lawmaker, who later voted against the nomination.
If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel, 66, would take charge of a military in turmoil, with looming budget cuts, the drawdown of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan and threats from North Korea, which defied the international community Tuesday in conducting its third nuclear test.
“We need a secretary of defense,” Levin said.
Democrats highlighted Hagel’s military background and the unique perspective he would bring to the Pentagon while arguing for giving a second-term president his Cabinet choices.