WASHINGTON — Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was answering a reporter's queries about Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary when he broke out a question of his own.
What are the Nebraska senators going to do?
With Senate Democrats steadily lining up behind Hagel ahead of his confirmation hearing Thursday, the focus shifts to which — if any — Senate Republicans will support the former GOP senator's nomination.
Two of the most closely watched will be Sens. Deb Fischer and Mike Johanns, each of whom has publicly withheld judgment on the pick.
Hagel has secured the backing of key Democrats such as Charles Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California. He added several more after a charm offensive across Capitol Hill last week, including Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. About a dozen Democrats now publicly back Hagel, and none have said they will oppose his nomination.
About a half dozen Republicans have said publicly they oppose Hagel, including Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, which will hold the hearing.
All of which builds the pressure on Hagel’s fellow Cornhuskers, who have many factors to weigh: Hagel’s positions on a plethora of policy issues, the feelings of constituents back home, perhaps even whether a Hagel-led Pentagon would be good for the future of Offutt Air Force Base.
Fischer and Johanns met separately with Hagel last week. Fischer described her conversation with him as “frank.” She said that she has some follow-up questions.
As a member of Armed Services, she will get a chance to question Hagel at the hearing.
Dozens of constituent calls to Fischer’s office have offered a mix of support and opposition, although she said most expressed anti-Hagel sentiments.
Hagel endorsed Fischer’s opponent last fall, Democrat Bob Kerrey, but she stressed that she’s looking at the issues, not at personal or partisan politics.
Both Fischer and Johanns have expressed concerns about Hagel statements and votes — including some related to Israel and Iran that garnered criticism from pro-Israel groups.
But Johanns sounded more upbeat about Hagel last week, saying he felt good about their hourlong meeting.
“I felt he answered my questions and I’m anxious now to see the hearing. ... He is making progress,” Johanns said.
Hagel and Johanns once were political allies. It was Hagel who stepped in to help Johanns win a nasty primary fight during his bid for governor.
Hagel’s endorsement of Kerrey created some tension between the two, however, with Johanns suggesting at the time that Hagel was angling for a spot in the Obama administration.
One X factor in the nomination is whether having Hagel in charge would benefit Offutt Air Force Base, given the talk of coming defense budget cuts and the potential for closing or downsizing military bases.
Fischer and Johanns both said they hadn’t felt an aggressive pro-Hagel push from Nebraska’s business community on that basis and downplayed the role it would play in their own decisions.
“Sen. Johanns and I are well positioned to look after the needs of Offutt,” Fischer said.
Ned Holmes, senior military liaison for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, noted that Hagel’s name never came up during a recent meeting of local defense contractors and representatives from Nebraska’s congressional delegation.
“Hopefully (the delegation) will be able to interact with Hagel if he’s confirmed and it’ll be a team effort for the state, but with the budget cuts for defense, it’s going to be tough for him,” Holmes said.
While there may have been no concerted effort on Hagel’s behalf, Jamie Karl, vice president of public affairs for the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the state’s business community is well aware of Offutt’s role in the economy and of concerns about budget cuts.
Defense contracting has grown as a sector of the Omaha-area economy, Karl said, with big defense companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman establishing a local presence.
“Among the business community — especially those who are in defense contracting and involved with the Offutt community — I think there is a general sense of confidence that Sen. Hagel certainly understands the situation at Offutt and knows the operations of Offutt like the back of his hand,” Karl said. “The fact that he understands the importance of the missions carried out by the personnel at Offutt, I think that bodes well for Nebraska.”
Karl worked for Hagel’s Senate office as a deputy press secretary from 1999 to 2000 and as an energy and agricultural policy aide from 2001 to 2003.
Not that long ago, Hagel was immensely popular in Nebraska, winning re-election to the Senate in 2002 with more than 83 percent of the vote.
Over the course of his second term, however, Hagel upset many Republicans with his criticisms of President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, his decision not to support John McCain’s 2008 presidential run and his stinging comments questioning vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Political observers say the mixed feelings of Nebraska Republicans toward Hagel afford Fischer and Johanns the freedom to follow their instincts on the confirmation vote.
“I don’t see a lot of down side to opposing him, and I don’t see a lot of down side to supporting him,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, noted the lack of a broad spectrum of Nebraskans supporting Hagel. He suggested Fischer and Johanns could wait and take their cues from colleagues as the nomination shapes up along fairly partisan lines.
“I think they’re probably not going to buck the trend unless they see some other people doing it,” Hibbing said.
Contact the writer: 202-630-4823, firstname.lastname@example.org