WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary has been met with opposition that is rare in its intensity and its focus on previous policy stands, according to close observers of the process.
The former GOP senator from Nebraska played the role of human punching bag during last week's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republicans verbally pummeled Hagel on his past positions and statements.
Of the panel's dozen GOP members, at least five have indicated that they will oppose his nomination.
Compare that with the experience of recent defense secretaries. Six of the past seven were confirmed by the full Senate by either a voice vote or a roll call with no dissent. The exception is Robert Gates, who was confirmed on a vote of 95-2.
That means Hagel could have more votes cast against him in committee than the Senate has cast against the previous seven secretaries combined.
“Historically, there's been a sense that the Senate has given the president somewhat of a free hand in the choice of Cabinet,” said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University who has written about the Senate and nomination politics.
Presidents are the ones who establish administration policies, and they are elected to run the executive branch of government with the help of their Cabinet. Such appointees differ from would-be judges, who serve for life in a separate branch of government. Cabinet posts run only until the next presidency.
Of course, it's unclear how much the lack of controversy on most top Cabinet nominations reflects a presidential tendency to nominate individuals likely to win confirmation easily.
Hagel's critics charge that it's his record that made him a controversial pick by President Barack Obama. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., described it as an “in-your-face” nomination.
And even Hagel supporters concede that his performance Thursday wasn't his best — at times fumbling for answers and making a few misstatements.
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Still, they point to unrelenting, impassioned Republican attacks.
“I was quite taken by the stridency of the questioning and the positions that seemed to have hardened since he was nominated,” said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. “It was brutal. Every time somebody on the Republican side asked questions, it felt more like an interrogation.”
Hagel's time before the committee certainly wasn't as difficult as when he rescued his brother during the Vietnam War, Kerrey said, but it's probably among the most unpleasant eight hours of his life.
In its 224-year history, the Senate has rejected only nine Cabinet nominees. The most recent was John Tower, who was nominated as defense secretary by President George H.W. Bush.
Kerrey cast one of the 53 votes against Tower, although he noted that Tower's rejection had more to do with allegations of alcoholism and womanizing than any differences on policy.
“Ninety percent of the time should be focused on whether the individual is competent,” Kerrey said. “Can they do the work?”
Certainly Hagel isn't the only nominee to get beaten up in the confirmation process. When President George W. Bush nominated John Ashcroft as attorney general, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee grilled him on his positions and statements on abortion, school desegregation and gun rights. Most Senate Democrats opposed his nomination.
Still, those cases are anomalies. “By and large, controversy is the exception,” Binder said. “It's much more likely that you don't really get this type of intense dispute about policy differences.”
University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing said it's definitely unusual to see a former senator get that kind of rough treatment, particularly in the absence of suggestions of ethical problems.
“The concerns here are pretty much restricted to policy kinds of things,” Hibbing said. “Who knows what's going on behind the scenes or what's in their heads, because he didn't have a lot of friends in the Senate, but certainly the arguments being put forward are purely ... on policy stances, what he said about the Jewish lobby, all those kinds of things.”
And it's important to note that Hagel remains likely to be confirmed. Thus far, Republicans have not indicated that they will filibuster his nomination, which would require 60 votes.
None of the 55 senators who are Democrats or who caucus with the Democrats has come forward to oppose him. At least two GOP senators, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, support Hagel as secretary of defense.
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