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Did Embattled Confirmation Process Weaken New Defense Secretary Hagel?

February 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate voted to confirm former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next defense secretary by a vote of 58-41, after 18 Republicans joined with Democrats to end a filibuster blocking the nominee. Judy Woodruff talks to Mark Thompson of Time magazine about whether the confirmation fight affects Hagel at the start of his tenure.
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  The United States Senate ended a contentious fight over a key presidential nomination today, and confirmed former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense. 

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., Majority Leader:  Twelve days later, nothing, nothing has changed.  Twelve days later, Senator Hagel’s exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  In short, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, Chuck Hagel should have been confirmed before the President’s Day recess.  At the time, the Senate’s 55 Democrats could not get the 60 votes needed to end a Republican filibuster against fellow Republican Hagel.  Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois condemned the GOP opposition today. 

 SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill., Majority Whip:  There’s no question that there are some who bear some negative feelings toward Chuck Hagel because of his independence and some of his votes in the past, even his support of President Obama in the last presidential election. But this has been taken to a level that I never expected. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Still, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker and other Republicans charged again that Hagel is too willing to compromise with Iran and too willing to criticize Israel. 

SEN. ROGER WICKER, R-Miss.:  Either we should disregard everything that the senator has said and stood for as merely hyperbole, or this is a nominee with a very unsettling and naive world view.  You can’t have it both ways. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Just five days ago, 15 Republican senators wrote to President Obama, asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.  But on Sunday, Arizona Senator John McCain said President Obama’s choice deserved an up-or-down vote. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.:  I do not believe that Chuck Hagel, who is a friend of mine, is qualified to be secretary of defense.  But I do believe that elections have consequences. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Today, 18 GOP senators joined with Democrats to end the filibuster.  Hours later, the Senate confirmed Hagel 58-41, mainly along party lines. 

For more, we turn to Mark Thompson, Time magazine’s national security reporter. 

Welcome back to the program. 

So, after all the storm and the fury from Republicans, enough of them voted to let this — this confirmation takes place.  What was this all about? 

MARK THOMPSON, Deputy Bureau Chief and Pentagon Correspondent, TIME:  Well, basically, it was on Valentine’s Day that the Senate wouldn’t let this proceed to an up-or-down vote. 

And, instead, basically, the Republicans were looking for something to derail the nomination, so for 12 days the nation waited, essentially.  Leon Panetta was running over to NATO and back to his walnut farm. We really didn’t have a true secretary of defense, other than this lame duck. 

Today, finally, the Republicans decided, hey, we have waited this long.  We can’t wait any longer.  The president does deserve an up-or-down vote on his candidate to run the Pentagon, and so they let it proceed. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But, meantime, they sent a message. 

MARK THOMPSON:  Yes, I mean, it is a disconcerting message. 

We had the Republican and the Democratic whips talking about vote counts, but, you know, foreign nations and people in the Pentagon can count votes too.  We have never had a defense secretary with this many opposing votes.  Now, this is something he can shake off, but it’s going to take some time. 

 JUDY WOODRUFF:  That’s right. 

I mean, he has the fewest confirming votes of any defense secretary since the job was created.  Mark Thompson, how does that affect his ability to do his job? 

MARK THOMPSON:  Well, it will depend. 

It will affect it in a big way if he acts as he did at his confirmation hearing, which by all accounts he didn’t do well.  Conversely, I talked to people in the Pentagon.  And the lower in ranks you go, the more they like this guy, the more they like the sense that an enlisted man is going to run the building. 

And if he can use that as a springboard, he’s facing immense challenges from sequestration to Afghanistan to a nuclear Iran, but it’s an opportunity for him to seize the moment.  And if he does, people will forget this pretty quickly, I think. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What about, though, the sour relations or whatever lingering effect there is from this loud vote of no confidence from Republicans in the Senate?  Does that affect his ability to do his job? 

MARK THOMPSON:  Yes, I think the important thing for people to realize is it’s a perceptions game.  And if he lets it bother him, it will.  But, conversely, if he doesn’t and if he moves on out, I mean, senators today were talking — some were saying, this will wound him, like Sen. Graham of South Carolina. 

And others like the chairman of the committee, Sen. Levin, said, no, it won’t.  We’re all about tomorrow.  We don’t focus that much on the past.  I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.  It will affect him.  But if he achieves escape velocity, it will be because of his own efforts. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So, from talking to folks in the Pentagon, and you were just telling me he’s had a — been working out of an office there, which is typical for folks who are nominated for that position.  Is there an early sense of how they think he’s prepared to handle this job? 

MARK THOMPSON:  I think, just like the lawmakers, no one knows, because we have had defense secretaries who have come from the Hill who have done very well, Dick Cheney being the most recent example, Leon Panetta. 

And then we have had folks like Les Aspin, who came from the Hill, who people thought would do real well and who really didn’t.  You can’t tell.  It takes about six months before you realize whether or not this person has got the moxie for the job. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And when you say do well, what’s the measuring stick here? 

MARK THOMPSON:  The measuring is grappling with the cuts that are coming this Friday. 

The question is, how smoothly can we withdraw from Afghanistan without being bit on our way out, and dealing with Iran.  I think those are the three big issues he’s facing today. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Mark Thompson, national security reporter for Time, thank you very much. 

MARK THOMPSON:  Thank you, Judy.