WASHINGTON The fierce Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary is personal and business.
The nasty fight long has been seen as a proxy for the never-ending scuffles between the Democratic president and congressional Republicans, with barely any reservoir of good will between the White House and lawmakers, and the GOP still smarting over the November election results.
Barring any surprises, the drawn-out battle over Hagel’s nomination probably will end this coming week with his Senate confirmation. But his fellow Republicans have roughed him up.
A vote is expected on Tuesday.
In the weeks after Obama secured a second term, Republicans knocked out a presidential favorite, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and dashed her secretary of state hopes over her widely debunked remarks about protests precipitating the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya on Sept. 11.
Emboldened Republicans then set their sights on Hagel, whose GOP classification won him no points with the party.
The former two-term Nebraska senator was widely viewed as a political heretic. He disagreed with President George W. Bush over the Iraq war, stayed on the sidelines in the 2008 president race between Obama and the Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and endorsed fellow Vietnam veteran and former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey in last year’s Nebraska Senate race.
Republicans remember it well.
“There’s a lot of ill will toward Sen. Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly, at one point said he was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said the surge (of U.S. troops in Iraq) was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which is nonsense, and was anti-his own party and people,” McCain said in an interview on Fox News on the day Republicans stalled Hagel’s nomination.
Hagel didn’t help his cause with his past opposition to unilateral penalties against Iran, his comment about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington, his support for reducing the nation’s nuclear arsenal and remarks that created widespread doubts about his backing for Israel.
His halting and uneven performance at his confirmation hearing also hurt his nomination.
McCain, one of Hagel’s friends during their years in the Senate, would have been a crucial vote to help sway other Republicans to back the nominee. Instead, he is one of more than a dozen opposing Hagel.
“I think he will have been weakened, but having said that, the job that he has is too important,” McCain told reporters Friday during a visit to Mexico. “I know that I and my other colleagues, if he’s confirmed, and he very likely will be, will do everything we can to work with him.”
The nomination fight also is about the business of re-electing Republicans in 2014. Challenging the Democratic president over his nominations and policies is clearly a winner with the conservative base, a point not lost on GOP incumbents wary of challenges from the tea party.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s up for re-election next year, is getting high marks from Republicans for his relentless effort to get more information about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, and his fierce opposition to Hagel.
“Most people down here think he’s dead-on in his arguments and hope that he continues to press the issues,” said Warren Tompkins, a longtime GOP strategist.
The Libya attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans has been a political flashpoint for Republicans who accused the Obama administration of an election-year cover-up of a terrorist assault.
An independent review conducted by respected former diplomats failed to mollify the GOP, who demanded testimony from Hillary Rodham Clinton, secretary of state when the attack occurred, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Graham has been at the forefront in seeking emails, communiques and videos while threatening to delay both Hagel’s nomination and that of CIA Director-nominee John Brennan, who also has become entangled in the Libya dispute.
During a stop in Easley, S.C., this past week, Graham insisted that his effort has nothing to do with politics.