PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Republican opponents of former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s stalled bid to become defense secretary said Sunday that they’ll probably allow his Senate confirmation vote to proceed unless material more damaging to the nominee — and, by extension, the Obama administration — surfaces in the coming week.
Critics said the decorated Vietnam combat veteran is a “radical” unqualified to lead the U.S. military. A top White House official expressed “grave concern” over the delayed confirmation vote, adding that there was nothing to worry about in any disclosures that may yet come.
“No, I don’t believe he’s qualified,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said of his fellow Republican and former Senate colleague. “But I don’t believe that we should hold up his nomination any further because I think it’s (been) a reasonable amount of time to have questions answered.”
McCain and other Republicans have angered President Obama by delaying him from rounding out his second-term national security team, which includes Hagel and John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser who is awaiting confirmation to become CIA director. Former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., assumed his post as secretary of state at the beginning of February.
Critics contend that Hagel, who snubbed McCain by staying neutral in the 2008 presidential race between McCain and Obama, isn’t supportive enough of U.S. ally Israel and is unreasonably sympathetic to Iran, which has defied international pressure to halt its pursuit of material that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Hagel’s nomination also became ensnared in Republican lawmakers’ questioning of how the White House handled the Sept. 11 attack against a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Hagel was not involved in the administration’s response.
Republican senators also have challenged Hagel’s past statements and votes on nuclear weapons, and his criticism of President George W. Bush’s administration.
Republicans last week delayed a confirmation vote, but have indicated that one will be allowed when senators return from a break Feb. 25.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another leader of the opposition to Hagel, said that Hagel sent him a letter disavowing an alleged comment about Israel and the State Department.
A 2007 blog post from a Republican strategist resurfaced last week, indicating that Hagel remarked in an appearance that year at Rutgers University that the State Department had become adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister’s office.
Graham said that, as a result, he’ll take Hagel “at his word, unless something new comes along.”
Still, the weeklong delay buys Hagel’s opponents more time to rally additional opposition.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, making his first appearances on the Sunday talk shows in his new role, was asked if the delays in filling out Obama’s Cabinet presented a threat to national security.
“It’s a grave concern,” he said.
Hagel “has one thing in mind: how do we protect the country,” McDonough said, adding that there was nothing to worry about in any disclosures about Hagel that may still come.
A Senate Democratic ally also sought Sunday to defend Hagel’s record.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., vouched for Hagel’s credentials, saying he has “the experience” to be defense secretary, citing his status as a combat veteran, “a business leader” and “the second deputy head of the VA in the Reagan administration.”
Graham said senators were taking seriously their responsibility to scrutinize “one of the most unqualified, radical choices for secretary of defense in a very long time.”
— The Washington Post contributed to this report.