WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel has another Senate Republican in his corner.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said Saturday that he will support Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary.
The loudest objections to the nomination have been over Hagel's past comments on Iran and Israel. Critics say he has been too soft on Iran and too tough on Israel.
Johanns said the greatest among his own concerns about Hagel dealt with his views on the Middle East and Israel. But Johanns said his hour-long meeting with Hagel and Thursday's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee convinced him to back the nomination.
“At the end of it I was comfortable that he will be a strong supporter of our allies; he will be a strong supporter of Israel,” Johanns told The World-Herald. “I think he'll be firm with our enemies, and I believe he'll be side-by-side with our allies, and I believe he'll exercise good judgment.”
Hagel, a Republican and former U.S. senator from Nebraska, already had the backing of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.
Johanns' support could bring along other Republican votes. Even if Hagel faces a filibuster, he would need only five GOP votes to be confirmed, assuming that President Barack Obama's pick gets the support of the entire Democratic caucus.
Johanns said he heard from Nebraskans who supported Hagel's nomination and others who were opposed. Supporters' most common remark was that it is always good to have a Nebraskan in the Cabinet, while opponents pointed to Hagel's past comments about Israel and other political issues.
State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha was one of those who urged Johanns to support Hagel.
Krist, who served 21 years in the Air Force, said Hagel's background as an enlisted military man will serve him well.
“He's a tough personality,” Krist said. “He thinks that the things that he believes in ... are worth fighting for, and that's the kind of spirit I'd like to see in that position.”
Johanns said he was struck by Hagel's statement during the hearing that he would change some of his past statements if he could. “That's Chuck's way of saying, 'It's one thing as an individual senator to talk about a whole host of things, it's quite another thing if you're a member of the president's Cabinet,' and that is a very, very important difference.”
Johanns said he probably knows Hagel as well as any member of the Senate. The two have personal and political ties that go back many years.
Still, he said, his support is not about personal connections. Johanns said he would have voted against Hagel despite their friendship if he weren't comfortable that Hagel would do a good job running the Pentagon.
Johanns said a major factor for him was the passion that Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, displayed for those who serve in uniform during their private meeting and in the public hearing. “He just deeply cares about these people, and I certainly want somebody in the secretary of defense office who has that genuine concern and care for the men and women who are out there making the sacrifice and understand what it's all about, and I just don't know how you could improve in that area upon Chuck Hagel.”
Hagel's performance under Thursday's intense questioning has been panned by many commentators, but Johanns expressed sympathy for Hagel, who was grilled for eight hours.
Johanns had his own confirmation hearing as President George W. Bush's nominee for agriculture secretary.
“I think I walked in there and people felt this is the right guy for this job, and yet the stress you go through preparing for it ...” Johanns said, adding that he thought the questioning of Hagel was fair.
Johanns said he hopes his support helps win Hagel more votes, although he doesn't plan to actively lobby on his behalf.
As for his home-state colleague, fellow Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, Johanns said she'll be making up her own mind.
“Deb is an enormously capable person who will make a call on this one the way she thinks is best, and Deb just doesn't need me running around telling her how to vote on things,” he said. “She operates very nicely on her own.”
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