Republicans use Hagel debacle to try and sink Obama

Chuck Hagel (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Chuck Hagel (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Republicans have found a boatload of reasons to try to sink Chuck Hagel‘s hopes of becoming the next defense secretary. But the issue they used this week to stall his nomination — the White House’s handling of last September’s deadly Benghazi attack — may seem entirely unrelated to Hagel’s qualifications because, well, it is.

Here are some questions and answers about the connection between President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the Pentagon and the campaign by Sen. John McCain and others in the Senate to press for more answers on Benghazi:

Q: How did the Hagel nomination become entangled with Benghazi?

A: The short answer is politics. Hagel had no role in the crisis that took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Neither did the Pentagon, although some have questioned why U.S. troops did not reach Libya until well after the crisis was over. The answer from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is that the closest relevant U.S. forces could not get there before the killings; he has said the Pentagon could have acted sooner if it had received intelligence warnings in advance of the attack.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has joined McCain, R-Ariz., in temporarily blocking the Hagel nomination, does not claim a connection between the two issues. He asserts that Obama was inattentive when the Benghazi emergency was unfolding, and that by keeping a public focus on this the Benghazi experience could be a teaching tool for future presidents. Graham, in other words, is using Hagel as a political wedge to highlight what he sees as an exploitable Obama failure.

The White House calls that “political posturing.” McCain himself has cast his opposition to Hagel in terms of political payback. He said on Fox News this week that during Hagel’s years in the Senate as a Republican from Nebraska, Hagel had been “anti his own party,” adding that “people don’t forget that” disloyalty.

Q: What remains to be uncovered about the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack?

A: In a nutshell, McCain, Graham and other Republicans say the White House needs to explain more fully why the four Americans died and what the president’s role was in coordinating a response by the Pentagon and State Department. The White House says it has answered all relevant questions. On Thursday the White House responded to a Republican request that it say whether Obama spoke to anyone in the Libyan government on the day of the attack, Sept. 11, to request assistance for the trapped Americans. The answer, which had been stated previously, was that Obama called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on the evening of Sept. 12, and that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned Magariaf on Obama’s behalf on Sept. 11.

Q: Are there more substantive reasons for Republicans’ opposition to Hagel?

A: Yes. They start with an assertion that Hagel is insufficiently supportive of Israel and unreasonably sympathetic to Iran. And Republicans dislike Hagel’s association with an international movement called Global Zero, which advocates for sharp reductions in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons and an eventual elimination of them worldwide. McCain has hammered Hagel for “a disqualifying lack of professional judgment.”

Hagel and the White House insist he is well qualified, in part on the basis of his experience in the Senate, his work in the private sector, and his record as a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. “For the sake of national security, it’s time to stop playing politics with our Department of Defense, and to move beyond the distractions and delay,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said after Thursday’s Senate action.

Q: Will Hagel ever be confirmed?

A: Unless new obstacles emerge, it appears that Hagel will win confirmation when the Senate returns from recess the week of Feb. 25. McCain and others who sought to prolong the Senate debate this week have said they will be ready to vote to permit an up-or-down vote when the Senate reconvenes. It likely will be a mostly party-line vote, unlike those of recent defense secretaries. Panetta, the outgoing Pentagon chief, for example, was approved 100-0.

On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama remains confident that Hagel will eventually be confirmed.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are additional politics that are injected into this circumstance. It is extremely unfortunate,” Earnest said.

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Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP
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Obama slams Republicans over delay of Hagel nomination

President Barack Obama (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
President Barack Obama
(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

President Barack Obama is criticizing Senate Republicans for delaying the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense. The president said his opponents are using politics while the nation is still in a war in Afghanistan.

Obama called Hagel, who is a former senator and Vietnam veteran, “eminently” qualified for the job Thursday and expressed confidence he would ultimately be confirmed. He said Republicans now insist that every issue and nomination requires a super majority of 60 votes.

Senate Democrats on Thursday came up short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural step that would have permitted a vote on Hagel’s confirmation.

Obama said blocking Hagel with a filibuster was “just about unprecedented.”

The president made his remarks during a Google online forum to promote his initiatives.
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Senate Republicans force delay on Hagel confirmation

Chuck Hagel .(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Chuck Hagel .(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

By delaying a confirmation vote on Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, Senate Republicans have forced Leon Panetta to remain on the job he is eager to give up. But they’ve also given the White House an opportunity to cast the GOP as obstructing President Barack Obama’s assembly of a second-term national security team.

Senate Republicans temporarily blocked a Hagel confirmation vote on Thursday, insisting that the administration must first answer more questions about its handling of a terrorist attack last September on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, called it “political posturing.”

“Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it got worse,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the GOP forced the delay.

The Senate action amounted to a parliamentary maneuver, with Democrats needing 60 votes for Hagel’s confirmation to move forward. It fell two votes short.

Still, Hagel is likely to win confirmation on a mostly party-line vote after the Senate returns from next week’s recess. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he expects many of his Republican colleagues to join him then to end the debate.

Alexander stopped short of predicting Hagel will be confirmed, but that is almost assured if he only needs a simple majority, and Democrats control the Senate by a 55-45 margin. Alexander called Thursday’s vote “unfortunate” and “unnecessary” because Hagel’s nomination came up on the Senate floor too quickly — just two days after it was approved by a divided Armed Services Committee.

The unprecedented stall tactic against a defense secretary nominee raised the rancor of frustrated Democrats, who immediately accused Republicans of threatening security and said they unnecessarily undercut U.S. credibility abroad.

“The world is too dangerous to have this period of uncertainty,” said Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director was also delayed; the Senate Intelligence Committee pushed off a vote amid Republican demands that the White House turn over more details about drone strikes against terror suspects and about the Benghazi attack.

In contrast, the Senate swiftly confirmed John Kerry to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state.

The Pentagon and CIA will continue under their current leadership, and Panetta will stay on as defense secretary until his successor is confirmed. At a Pentagon award ceremony for Clinton, Panetta said it was fitting to recognize her accomplishments as secretary of state on Valentine’s Day. And he said the second-best Valentine’s Day present would be for the Senate to confirm Hagel and allow Panetta and his wife to “get the hell out of town.” He said he’s got his belongings packed.

Reid said he hoped to proceed with an up-or-down vote on Feb. 26 and suggested that the Republicans’ maneuvers have left the Pentagon leaderless.

“What does that do to our standing in the world community?” he asked in remarks on the Senate floor.

Although he had made no secret of his hope to retire by now, Panetta will be back in the Pentagon next week.

His press secretary, George Little, said Panetta will fly to Brussels for a NATO meeting late next week where allies will consider the size and scope of a post-combat mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. is hoping allied nations will contribute troops and money for continued training of Afghan security forces, which are to be fully responsible for security by the end of 2014.

Obama himself suggested that Hagel’s absence from the Brussels meeting could hurt the war effort. He also criticized Republicans for blocking the Hagel nomination and forcing him to win 60 votes instead of the usual majority.

“It’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I’m still presiding over a war in Afghanistan, and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies to make sure that our troops are getting the kind of strategy and mission that they deserve,” the president said in an online chat sponsored by Google.

A veterans group that is backing Hagel’s nomination also lamented the delay.

“Our enemies look for any moment — however brief — of weakness,” said Jon Soltz, a Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org.

Republicans, led by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, insisted the White House tell them more about how Obama handled the Benghazi crisis.

Seeking to break the logjam, the White House responded to a Feb. 12 letter from Graham, McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., to Obama asking whether he spoke to any Libyan government official during the Sept. 11 assault about getting assistance. Republicans have sought to portray Obama as being out of touch during the attack.

Clinton called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on Obama’s behalf on Sept. 11 to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler wrote in the Feb. 14 response. Obama spoke to Magariaf on the evening of Sept. 12, she said.

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Associated Press writers Richard Lardner, Jim Kuhnhenn, Donna Cassata, Laurie Kellman and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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In divided vote, Senate panel approves Hagel for Defense Secretary

Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

A bitterly divided Senate panel has voted to approve the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the nation’s defense secretary.

The Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 to send the nomination to the full Senate. Tuesday’s vote broke along party lines with all 14 Democrats backing President Barack Obama’s choice.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is pushing for a full Senate vote by week’s end, but some Republicans are threatening to filibuster the nomination.

Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator and Vietnam combat veteran, faces strong opposition from GOP senators. They have questioned whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel and too tolerant of Iran.

Democrats have the votes to confirm Hagel on a majority vote. He would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

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Senate panel set to vote on Hagel nomination

 Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pushed ahead Monday with plans for a vote on Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary despite Republican demands for more financial information from him.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pushed ahead Monday with plans for a vote on Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary despite Republican demands for more financial information from him.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Republican, twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran and former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel — faces his first major hurdle in his bid to become the nation’s defense secretary as a bitterly divided Senate Armed Services Committee pushes toward a vote on his nomination.

The panel is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss and vote on President Barack Obama’s choice to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after four years as CIA director and Pentagon chief. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is pressing for a full Senate vote on either Wednesday or Thursday.

Hagel faces fierce opposition from Republicans who have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons. Committee Republicans forced a delay in the expected committee vote last week when they pressed Hagel for more information about his personal finances.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the GOP demands were beyond the scope of those traditionally asked of previous nominees, Republican and Democrat — a point echoed by his Republican colleague, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Levin set a committee vote that will probably break along party lines — 14 Democrats for Hagel, 12 Republicans against their former colleague — just hours before Obama’s State of the Union address to Congress.

More critical to whether Republicans drag out the nomination is the closed-door, weekly Republican luncheon Tuesday where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will determine whether GOP lawmakers have the inclination and votes to filibuster a president’s Cabinet choice. Such a move would be unprecedented in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats have argued that a president’s nominee should get an up or down vote.

Late Monday, McCain met privately with several committee Republicans and urged them not to filibuster the Hagel nomination, arguing that it would set a bad precedent and pointing out that the roles could be reversed someday with a Republican president and GOP-controlled Senate.

“I’m encouraging my colleagues if they want to vote against Sen. Hagel that’s one thing and that’s a principled stand,” McCain told a group of reporters. “We do not want to filibuster. We have not filibustered a Cabinet appointee in the past and I believe that we should move forward with his nomination, bring it to the floor and vote up or down.”

McCain has not said how he would vote on the nomination, but has indicated he was learning against confirmation.

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he is determined to do everything in his power to scuttle the nomination, though he told reporters he does not want to string out the process. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has signaled that he would block the nominations of Hagel and CIA Director-designate John Brennan if he doesn’t get more answers about the deadly raid on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September.

“I’m insisting that the president answer … what he did that night. That’s all. It would take five minutes to answer my question,” Graham told reporters. “It’s the only leverage I have.”

The White House pushed back Monday, with spokesman Jay Carney insisting the administration had answered lingering questions about Libya and the president’s actions on that fateful day.

“What is unfortunate here is the continuing attempt to politicize an issue, in this case through nominees that themselves had nothing to do with Benghazi, and to do so in a way that only does harm to our national security interests,” Carney said. “Sen. Hagel, Mr. Brennan, they need to be confirmed.”

All 55 Democrats are expected to back Hagel, and two Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — have said they will vote for the nominee. At least five Republicans, including McCain, have said they oppose a filibuster despite their reservations or opposition toward the nominee.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he would not support a filibuster.

“Chuck and I have been friends. I have to say I was disappointed in his performance” at his confirmation hearing, Hatch said.

Hagel seemed ill-prepared under withering cross-examination from committee Republicans in nearly eight hours of testimony on Jan. 31. He was repeatedly pressed about past statements and votes on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons, with GOP lawmakers suggesting he wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Israel or anti-Iran.

About a dozen Republicans have said they will oppose their former colleague, and several others have indicated they are likely to vote no.

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Senate Dems to GOP: Forget your stupid games on Hagel

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., right, talks with committee member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., during the the committee's confirmation hearing for former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Levin said Friday he will press ahead with a vote on Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, rejecting Republicans demands for more financial information from President Barack Obama’s choice as setting an unprecedented new standard. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., right, talks with committee member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., during the the committee’s confirmation hearing for former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s choice for defense secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Levin said Friday he will press ahead with a vote on Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, rejecting Republicans demands for more financial information from President Barack Obama’s choice as setting an unprecedented new standard. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Friday he will press ahead with a vote on Chuck Hagel‘s nomination to be defense secretary, rejecting Republicans demands for more financial information from President Barack Obama’s choice as setting an unprecedented standard.

In a letter, Sen. Carl Levin provided a point-by-point rebuttal to the GOP requests for data on Hagel’s paid speeches and foreign donors to private entities he’s been affiliated with, arguing that the requirements exceed the committee’s rules and what has been asked of previous defense secretaries, Republican and Democrat.

“The committee cannot have two different sets of financial disclosure standards for nominees, one for Sen. Hagel and one for other nominees,” the Michigan Democrat wrote.

His letter was in response to Wednesday letter from 26 Senate Republicans to Hagel insisting that they needed more information before they could vote on his nomination. Among those signing the GOP letter were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel.

Republicans have asked Hagel to disclose all compensation of more than $5,000 from the past five years — three years more than the law or committee rules require. Levin said the panel’s two-year requirement on disclosure is consistent with the Ethics in Government Act as well as past practices for all nominees for Senate-confirmed positions and candidates for federal office.

Levin said the committee’s disclosure requirements for nominees have remained the same for 26 years, including his 16 as chairman or ranking member. In that nearly three-decade span, the committee has confirmed defense secretaries and other senior civilian nominees at the Pentagon with far more lucrative and extensive financial holdings than Hagel, including Republicans Frank Carlucci and Dick Cheney.

Inhofe said Friday that some members of the committee “believe in order to properly consider this nomination that additional information is required. I am working to address these members’ concerns.”

Hagel, 66, a former two-term Republican senator and decorated combat veteran in the Vietnam War, has faced fierce GOP opposition, with more than dozen Republicans announcing they will vote against him and several others indicating they were likely to vote no. Hagel has faced a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and GOP-leaning outside groups who have complained that he is too tolerant of Iran, too critical of Israel and willing to slash the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Hagel’s halting and uneven testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services panel undercut his nomination.

This week, Levin postponed an expected vote on the nomination as the GOP pressed for information.

Despite the setbacks, the president’s pick to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to win confirmation, with the backing of all 55 Senate Democrats and at least two Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Hagel’s home state. More than a handful of Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they oppose a filibuster of the nomination.

Levin intends to schedule a vote as soon as possible on Hagel’s nomination, and congressional aides said a vote could occur next week before the Senate breaks for a weeklong recess.

In his letter, Levin said the Republicans’ demand for information about foreign sources of funding to private entities subjects Hagel to a different requirement than all other previous nominees for positions at the Pentagon.

Specifically, the Republican senators want Hagel to disclose whether any of the eight organizations and businesses he was affiliated with after leaving the Senate in 2009 received money from foreign sources. Their letter argued that the information was needed to know whether Hagel received directly or indirectly any “financial remuneration” from foreign governments, sovereign wealth funds, lobbyists and corporations.

But Hagel has already told the committee that neither he nor his wife has received during the last 10 years any compensation from, or been involved in any business transactions with, a foreign government or an entity controlled by a foreign government, Levin wrote.

Levin cited Hagel’s role as chairman of the board of directors at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit think tank, to demonstrate the unusual breadth of the GOP’s demands. Among the Atlantic Council’s corporate contributors are U.S. companies, such as Chevron, Citigroup and Boeing, and foreign entities, including Polish Telecom, the Istanbul Stock Exchange and All Nippon Airways.

“Over the 16 years that I have served as either chairman or ranking minority member of this committee, we have considered numerous nominations of individuals who were associated with similar thinks tanks, universities and other nonprofit entities,” Levin wrote. “Even in the many cases where a nominee received compensation from such a nonprofit entity, we did not require the nominee to disclose the sources of funding provided to the nonprofit entity.”

Hagel also has worked for seven for-profit companies based in the United States, Levin wrote. He left four of these businesses in 2010 and has not received any compensation from them during the two-year reporting period covered by law, Levin told Inhofe. Nonetheless, Levin wrote, the Republicans want Hagel to give them 10 years of financial information on foreign investments or money these companies might have received.

“We have considered board members, officers, directors and employers of companies doing business across the full range of our economy,” Levin wrote. “In this time, we have never required the nominee to attempt to ascertain and disclose the names of investors in such an entity.”

Last month, Hagel told Pentagon officials he would divest some of his financial holdings and resign from several corporate boards and public interest groups to avoid potential conflicts of interest if he wins Senate confirmation.

Well-funded outside groups are keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism of Hagel. The Emergency Committee for Israel is running an ad on cable in the New York and Washington markets as well as the Sunday morning network news shows assailing Hagel on Iran. The American Future Fund is launching an ad on Sunday that includes sound bites from Hagel’s testimony in which the nominee struggled with questions.

Obama announced his nomination of Hagel on Jan. 7. Panetta is stepping down after serving as CIA director and Pentagon chief in the Obama administration.

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Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.

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Panetta bids farewell, gets salute from Obama

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, and his wife Sylvia, center, applaud as they stand with President Barack Obama during Armed Forces Farewell Ceremony to honor Panetta, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va.  (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, and his wife Sylvia, center, applaud as they stand with President Barack Obama during Armed Forces Farewell Ceremony to honor Panetta, Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va.
(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

Calling it “the honor of my life,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said farewell to the U.S. military Friday, capping a venerated public service career that spanned four decades and included stints as a lawmaker, a top White House official and the spy chief who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden.

President Barack Obama, honoring his first-term Pentagon chief at a ceremony at a military base outside Washington, said Panetta would be remembered for welcoming more Americans into the military by opening combat roles to women and overseeing the repeal of a ban on gays serving openly — “In short, for making our military and our nation that much stronger.”

“Every decision he has made has been with one goal in mind: taking care of our sons and our daughters in uniform and keeping America safe,” Obama said.

Panetta, the son of immigrants and self-described son of Italy, said he hoped in some small way to have helped to fulfill the dreams of his parents. As he spoke, row upon row of U.S. troops stood behind him, rifles and bayonets at their sides.

“It’s been, for me, a hell of a ride,” said Panetta, who served in Congress and in the Clinton administration before becoming Obama’s CIA director and ultimately serving a brief but pivotal term as defense secretary.

“I will never forget the pride and exhilaration when I walked out of the White House after the president announced the success of the bin Laden operation,” he recalled. “I could hear the chants of those people who were gathered around the White House and in Lafayette Park yelling, ‘U.S.A. U.S.A.'”

Looming awkwardly over the formal farewell ceremony was the ongoing uncertainty about Panetta’s replacement.

Obama has nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to take over for Panetta, but Republicans have expressed deep misgivings about his previous statements about Iran, Israel and other issues. Days after postponing a vote on Panetta’s confirmation amid GOP demands for more information, the Democratic chairman of the Senate’s military panel said Friday he will press ahead with a vote.

Making no reference to the political hurdles, Obama said Hagel’s mission would be to keep the U.S. military prepared and described Hagel as “a combat veteran with the experience, judgment and vision that our troops deserve.”

Panetta has said he will remain on the job until the Senate confirms a successor. Then he will finally leave the Pentagon, returning home to his walnut farm in Carmel, Calif., after more than 40 years in Washington.

Panetta’s tenure at the Pentagon was marked both by major milestones and a series of obstacles he and the military had to work to overcome. He oversaw the military’s formal exit from Iraq and the start of the last drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, plus the end of a successful NATO campaign to rid Libya of Moammar Gadhafi.

But his attention was also diverted by prostitution scandals, spikes in sexual assaults and suicides, and ethical lapses by a handful of senior military leaders. An ongoing battle over spending cuts prompted Panetta to warn continually of the dire consequences of an underfunded military. Even as Panetta continued the efforts against al-Qaida, the threat from the terrorist group expanded in places like North Africa.

“We’ve overcome wars. We’ve overcome disasters. We’ve overcome economic depressions and recessions. We’ve overcome crises of every kind,” Panetta said. “And throughout our history, the fighting spirit of our fellow Americans has made clear that we never, never, never give up.”

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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Democratic support growing for Hagel nomination

 Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. with Secretary of Defense-nominee and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks to journalists following their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. with Secretary of Defense-nominee and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks to journalists following their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013.
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Democratic support for Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary grew on Thursday as the former Republican senator allayed concerns about his past statements on Israel and Iran.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Chris Coons of Delaware and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said they met with Hagel this week and were reassured by his commitment to Israel’s security.

Hagel would replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down. Despite early misgivings, about a dozen Democrats have announced they would vote for his nomination, and none has declared opposition to President Barack Obama’s choice.

Six Republicans have said they would vote against Hagel, with some stating their opposition before Obama announced his pick on Jan. 7.

Senator Hagel clarified his position on Iran sanctions and Israel, and I am confident he is firmly committed to ensuring a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Lautenberg said, adding that he and his colleagues will be watching closely “to ensure that issues of concern do not emerge as he takes on this critical position.”

Separately, 13 former secretaries of defense and state as well as national security advisers sent a letter to members of the Senate strongly endorsing Hagel. Among them was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, and George Schultz and Brent Scowcroft, veterans of GOP administrations.

“For those of us honored to have served as members of a president’s national security team, Sen. Hagel clearly understands the essence and the burdens of leadership required of this high office,” the former officials wrote.

Hagel, who served two terms as Nebraska senator, has faced opposition from GOP-leaning outside groups over his past statements about the power of the “Jewish lobby” of pro-Israel groups and his doubts about the effectiveness of unilateral sanctions on Iran.

Not one GOP lawmaker has endorsed the nominee. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., writing in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, all but announced his opposition.

“When we are faced with unpredictable national security crises, we can’t afford to have a secretary of defense who has unpredictable judgment,” Barrasso wrote.

Other lawmakers have said they are waiting for Hagel’s confirmation hearing next Thursday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and would have the votes to confirm Hagel.

“Chuck is a combat veteran and foot soldier who has a unique understanding of the challenges faced by our men and women in uniform, and a practical leader who understands the need for common sense in military spending and national security strategy,” Manchin said in a statement.

Coons said he believes Hagel “will be a strong and effective secretary of defense, and I will be proud to vote for his confirmation.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who met with Hagel on Thursday, said he had satisfied her concerns and she felt his responses were sincere. A member of the Armed Services Committee, she said she would reserve judgment until after the hearing but described Hagel as well-qualified for the job.

Their statements came shortly after Sen. John Kerry, the president’s choice for secretary of state, found himself defending Hagel at his confirmation hearing.

“I know Chuck Hagel. I think he is a strong patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense,” Kerry said of Hagel, who, like Kerry, served in Vietnam.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker questioned Kerry about Hagel’s support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons. Possible reductions and modernization of the nuclear arsenal are major issues for the Tennessee lawmaker, who has the Y-12 nuclear facility in his state.

Corker has expressed concerns about Hagel, questioning whether the Republican’s “overall temperament” makes his suitable for the job.
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A rough confirmation ride predicted for Hagel nomination

President Barack Obama listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where he announced that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, center, as the new CIA director; and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, right, as the new defense secretary.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where he announced that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, center, as the new CIA director; and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, right, as the new defense secretary.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama’s pick of Chuck Hagel to helm the Pentagon faces rough going in the Senate as a handful of Republicans quickly announced their opposition to a former GOP colleague, and several skeptical Democrats reserved judgment until the nominee explains his views on Israel and Iran.

The concerns about Hagel complicate his path to Senate confirmation but are not necessarily calamitous as the White House pushes for the first Vietnam War veteran to oversee a military emerging from two wars and staring at deep budget cuts.

Obama also tapped White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, faces no major obstacles, but he is expected to be hit with questions about torture and administration leaks of secret information.

Moments after Obama announced his selection of Hagel and called him “the leader that our troops deserve,” some Senate Republicans voiced opposition to the former Nebraska lawmaker who spent 12 years in the Senate.

“Given Chuck Hagel’s statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a statement. “Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse.”

Other Senate Republicans, including the No. 2 GOP lawmaker, John Cornyn of Texas, new member Ted Cruz of Texas and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, signaled they would vote against the nomination.

Hagel has upset some Israel backers with his comment about the “Jewish lobby,” his votes against unilateral sanctions against Iran while backing international penalties on the regime in Tehran and his criticism of talk of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran.

He also upset gay rights groups over past comments, including his opposition in 1998 to President Bill Clinton’s choice of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. He referred to Hormel as “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel recently apologized, saying his comments were “insensitive.”

Those remarks and actions have created fierce opposition from some pro-Israel groups, criticism from some Republicans and unease among some congressional Democrats.

The Log Cabin Republicans took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post highlighting their opposition to Hagel, and Gregory T. Angelo, interim executive director of the gay rights group, said the gay and lesbian grassroots organization is considering other steps in a campaign against Hagel’s nomination.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who does not have a vote on the nomination, called Hagel the “wrong man” for the job and complained that “his inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream.”

In an interview with the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star, Hagel said his statements have been distorted and there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel.”

In a critical sign of support for Hagel’s prospects, the 66-year-old moderate Republican attracted words of praise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who heads the Intelligence panel.

Levin called Hagel “well-qualified.” Feinstein described him as “a knowledgeable and independent voice with a strong grasp of the pressing national security issues facing our country.” Reid said “few nominees have such a combination of strategic and personal knowledge of our national defense needs.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Hagel “is a combat veteran who still carries shrapnel in his body from his wounds. He will not need on-the-job training.”

Several Democrats, most notably Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, and a number of Republicans, including Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona, said they would await the Senate process and the opportunity to question Hagel. That raises the stakes for his private meetings with senators and his confirmation hearing in the next few weeks before the Armed Services Committee.

While some opposition was expected for Obama’s nominee, no senator has threatened to block the selection. Republican and Democratic congressional aides said the White House wouldn’t have put forth the nomination if it didn’t think it had the votes for Hagel’s confirmation. Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate.

Hagel’s hopes rest on the willingness of senators to give a president his picks for the Cabinet, and the high threshold of deeming a nominee unfit for a civilian appointment. Politically, it would be remarkable for the Democratic-controlled Senate to deny Obama his nominee and undercut the president at the start of his second term and in the midst of fierce budget negotiations with Republicans.

The Senate has rejected one of its own in recent years.

In 1989, the Democratic-led Senate voted down the nomination of John Tower to serve as defense secretary over questions about the former Republican senator’s personal life. It was an embarrassment to President George H.W. Bush, who then turned to Dick Cheney to lead the Pentagon.

While the Armed Services Committee decides Hagel’s fate, the Senate Intelligence panel will decide on Brennan, 57, a close Obama adviser for the past four years.

Brennan withdrew from consideration for the spy agency’s top job in 2008 amid questions about his connection to harsh interrogation techniques used during the George W. Bush administration. He is certain to face questions about the issue again from Democrats while Republicans press him on leaks of classified information in the Obama administration.

In announcing the nominations in the East Room, Obama urged the Senate to move quickly.

“When it comes to national security, we don’t like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in,” the president said.

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Lolita C. Baldor, Lara Jakes and Connie Cass contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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Obama will nominate John Breenan to run CIA

John Brennan
John Brennan

President Barack Obama will nominate John Brennan as his next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, currently serves as Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser. The White House says the president will announce Brennan’s nomination during an event Monday afternoon.

At the same event, an administration official says, the president will also formally announce that he is nominating Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary. Both men must be confirmed by the Senate.

Obama considered Brennan for the top CIA job in 2008. But Brennan withdrew his name amid questions about his connection to enhanced interrogation techniques while serving in the spy agency during the George W. Bush administration.

Brennan denied involvement in the controversial interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, and has spoken out against them.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press

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