Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel testifies Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his bid to become the next defense secretary, and behind the scenes, senators are quietly lining up on both sides of the confirmation fight.
The White House seems confident that Hagel, after gaining the public endorsements of key Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), is on a glide path to confirmation. Hagel has been working the halls of the Senate diligently, meeting with senators from both parties. Several key Democrats have announced their support and some officials argue that this foretells a confirmation victory for Hagel and President Barack Obama.
"Senator Hagel's meetings on the Hill are going very well, and that's why you saw over the past two weeks a number of strong endorsements," an official working on the confirmation told The Cable, pointing to the strong support for Hagel within the Democratic caucus.
But only one GOP senator has come out in support -- Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) -- and several Republicans have promised to oppose Hagel's nomination. Dozens of other Republican senators are keeping their powder dry, refusing to say on the record which way they are leaning. They are being lobbied hard by their colleagues and several well-heeled outside interest groups.
Most undecided senators point to Thursday's hearing as the measure of whether or not they will ultimately support Hagel. But despite their reluctance to commit, staffers and operatives working on both sides of the confirmation battle have a good idea about which senators are likely to vote which way.
Some GOP senators have firmly stated their opposition to Hagel's confirmation and will not back down. They include Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK), David Vitter (R-LA), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Dan Coats (R-IN) and John Cornyn (R-TX). Asked Tuesday if he would block Hagel or just vote against him, Inhofe said, "One step at a time."
Cornyn is said to be leading the anti-Hagel effort inside the GOP caucus, according to multiple Senate aides. In a brief interview with The Cable, Cornyn said he was talking to other senators about Hagel "just on a personal basis."
"It's not a leadership position, but I'm opposed to the Hagel nomination," he said.
Several other GOP senators have strongly indicated they will oppose the Hagel nomination but have not explicitly promised to vote no. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has criticized the nomination several times and said this week he would block a vote until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on Benghazi, though a hearing is not yet scheduled. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) penned a blistering Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing Hagel last week. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) has said he has "deep concerns" about the Hagel nomination.
"We had a nice, healthy talk. Y'all just should just show up Thursday," Graham said Tuesday after meeting with Hagel.
GOP senators and their aides are predicting a confrontational hearing and claim that the committee might approve Hagel on a party-line vote, with all or nearly all GOP committee members voting against him. Several other GOP senators are said to be leaning to oppose the nomination, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Kelly Ayotte (R-AZ), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and several others. (Cruz, along with Inhofe and Cornyn, was one of only three senators to vote Tuesday against John Kerry's nomination to be secretary of state.)
A limited number of GOP senators are now the target of intense lobbying because they have not clearly indicated, even privately, which way they are leaning. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) are the two most influential in this group. McCain, a former "close friend" of Hagel's, has been critical of the nominee's stance on Iran, while Corker, a staunch supporter of nuclear modernization, has repeatedly and disapprovingly invoked Hagel's commitment to nuclear force reductions.
"It was a pleasant conversation," McCain said Tuesday after meeting with Hagel for 45 minutes. Asked if Hagel had addressed his McCain's concerns, McCain said, "No he has not."
Corker met with Hagel Jan. 25 for 53 minutes and still declined to endorse him for the Pentagon job. "These hearings matter a great deal to me," Corker told The Cable. "I spent a lot of time with Hagel on Friday talking about nuclear modernization... You shouldn't take pro or con from this conversation."
The Cable asked Corker if Hagel was modifying his positions on subjects like Iran, Israel, and nukes out of political expediency in order to get confirmed.
"That's a very good point and we'll certainly be tuned in to see if that's the case," Corker replied.
Other fence-sitters include Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Rand Paul (R-KY), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Richard Burr (R-NC), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Chuck Grassley (R-IO), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also not weighed in on the Hagel nomination.
Collins met with Hagel for 90 minutes last week and told The Cable Tuesday she would reserve judgment on the nomination until after the hearing.
"We had a good discussion, but it's obvious that we have very different views on some fundamental issues," Collins said. "So I want to hear more from him on a number of issues and the hearing affords that opportunity."
The anti-Hagel forces are keeping up the pressure, for example by having 400 members of the group Christians United for Israel lobbying senators on Capitol Hill this week.
There's a wide recognition that Hagel's confirmation hearing is going to be contentious. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said this week that there might actually have to be two hearings to air all the committee members' concerns.
"It depends on whether we don't have enough time, or something shows up [during the back-and-forth] that requires a second hearing," Levin said.
Even with dozens of GOP senators voting no, the conventional wisdom remains that Hagel will ultimately get confirmed, even if it is with a historically low, but nevertheless filibuster-proof majority.
For Hagel's opposition, the best-case scenario is that only a few Republicans break ranks and a couple of Democrats do break ranks, giving the Hagel opposition the 40 votes needed to filibuster the vote on the nomination. They recognize that is unlikely and a filibuster of a cabinet nominee is extremely rare, but they plan to continue their effort well past Hagel's confirmation hearing, hoping that more embarrassing quotes from Hagel's past surface or a new scandal comes to light.
"There's a lot of White House spin about Hagel's clear path to confirmation, but they have a real fight on their hands -- and they know it," one GOP source close to the committee said.
For the team of officials, staffers, and outsiders working to bolster the Hagel nomination, they believe that Hagel's Thursday testimony will take the wind out of the sails of the opposition and set the record straight on the former senator's views.
"It's unfortunate that you have a number of senators that decided to take a very public very aggressive position weeks ahead of the confirmation hearing without actually speaking to the nominee," one Hagel supporter close to the process told The Cable. "This hearing is the first honest opportunity for Hagel to explain his positions, defend his record out in the open, and he will forcefully address much of the misinformation about his record that has been advanced by a small minority of folks on the Hill."
"We think we are in a good, strong position going forward, but nobody takes anything for granted in this business," an official working on behalf of the confirmation effort added.
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