Confrontations, answers at confirmation hearing could haunt Hagel in final vote

While Democrats emerged from Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing mostly defending President Obama's nominee for Defense secretary, the former Republican senator faced a chorus of criticism from members of his own party Friday.

A committee vote on the nomination could come as early as next week. The 14-12 Democratic edge on the committee suggests Hagel will squeak out with a recommendation, but it's unclear whether Republicans will throw up roadblocks to a final vote.

A series of exchanges during the day-long hearing Thursday continued to stir skepticism among Republican senators, 12 of whom so far have said they will oppose his nomination. These exchanges could haunt the Pentagon nominee in the days ahead:


One moment from Thursday's hearing that seemed likely to echo into the weekend was when Hagel referred to Iran as a "legitimate" government. At the time, he was questioned by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., about Hagel's past comments on direct engagement with Iran and opposition to designating the country's Revolutionary Guard as a terror group.

More On This...

    "The effort against it," he explained of the Revolutionary Guard vote, "the main point made on the floor of the Senate came from Senator Jim Webb. And his point was we have never, ever designated a part of a legitimate government, a state -- when I say legitimate, it doesn't mean we agree with Iran, but it is a member of the United Nations. Almost all of our allies have embassies in Iran. So that's -- that's why I note an elected legitimate government, whether we agree or not."

    At the White House later, Press Secretary Jay Carney would not comment on whether the government of Iran, established during the 1979 revolution, is legitimate. The country's 2009 elections were widely disputed as well.

    Hagel later corrected himself, saying he should call the Tehran government "recognizable."


    Hagel surely came to Thursday's hearing prepared to address his comment in 2006 in which he said "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Washington.

    He was repeatedly questioned about the comment and offered an apology during the hearing. But he was aggressively pressed on the matter by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

    "Name one person in your opinion who's intimidated by the Israeli lobby in United States Senate?" Graham said. "Name one."

    "I do not know," Hagel said.

    "Well, why would you say it?" Graham responded.

    The senator then asked about the other part of the quote, in which Hagel complained about the "dumb things they do."

    Graham asked: "Name one dumb thing we have been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby?"

    After another tense back-and-forth, Hagel said, "I cannot give you an example."


    Sen. John McCain and Hagel were colleagues in the Senate, and they both served in Vietnam. But their shared experience was not apparent Thursday, as McCain challenged him on the troop surge in Iraq.

    McCain repeatedly tried to get Hagel to answer whether he was "right or wrong" when he once called the troop surge a "dangerous foreign policy blunder."

    "I'm not going to give you a yes or no -- I think it's far more complicated than that. ... I'll defer that judgment to history," Hagel said, adding that he was referring to both the overall Iraq war and the surge in that comment

    McCain fired back: "I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it."

    The senator added that Hagel's "refusal" to answer the question "will have an impact" on whether he votes for his nomination.


    Shortly before Hagel's hearing, past comments surfaced that showed him reportedly saying Israel was keeping "Palestinians caged up like animals."

    Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Hagel about that quote.

    Hagel, in response, did what he did several times during the hearing -- acknowledged that he said it but walked it back.

    "Well, I said it. And I don't remember the context or when I said it," he said.

    Lee asked whether he believes that today.

    "No. If I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I've said, I would," Hagel said.

    Hagel said he was speaking in a "larger context of the frustration and what's happening, which is not in Israel's interests."


    Hagel was caught by surprise when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, played two tapes from Hagel's appearances on Al Jazeera -- one of which showed him not challenging a caller who accused Israel of war crimes, another in which he appeared to agree with the assertion that America is "the world's bully."

    Of the Israel interview, Cruz said: "The caller suggests that the nation of Israel has committed war crimes, and your response to that was not to dispute that characterization." He then asked Hagel directly whether he thinks Israel has committed war crimes.

    "No, I do not," Hagel said, while saying he wanted to see the "full context" of the interview.

    Cruz then played the tape of Hagel being asked about the perception and "reality" that America is the world's bully. Hagel could be heard calling the point a "good one."

    Cruz said the answer is "not the conduct one would expect of a secretary of Defense."


    Sen. David Vitter, R-La., took Hagel to task for saying in 2006 that Israel was committing "the systematic destruction of an American friend" with anti-Hezbollah strikes in Lebanon.

    "What do you say about those quotes today?" Vitter said.

    Hagel answered: "Well, first, I said them. I've been asked about them. I've said I regret saying that. It was in the larger context of a speech I made about what was going on, the 30-some days of war going on. I also included, in that speech, the responsibility of Hezbollah, who started the war."


    After the hearing Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he thought Hagel "really advanced his own cause" at the hearing.

    A senior administration official gave a more mixed view. He said Hagel's testimony "wasn't perfect" but that he made clear he supports the president's policies.

    Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told Fox News on Friday that he will not support Hagel, citing what he described as the nominee's inconsistencies. But he speculated that the Senate may only require a 51-vote majority in order to approve him -- as opposed to a 60-vote threshold.

    "At that level, I think he makes it -- but I don't think he makes it with a lot of room to spare," Blunt said.

    White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday he would be "stunned" if Republicans blocked the nomination.