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Confirmation Hearing Was A Rough Ride For Hagel

Correction: We mistakenly identify retired Sen. Sam Nunn as a Republican. He is a Democrat.

It was just days ago that Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry sailed through Senate confirmation to his new job as secretary of state. When Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel came before his former colleagues Thursday, he got a decidedly less friendly reception on his path to secretary of defense.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. President Obama's nominee for defense secretary is a former senator. He is also a Republican.

MONTAGNE: But neither his party affiliation nor his former membership in the Senate club spared Chuck Hagel from almost eight hours of hard questions yesterday.

INSKEEP: At a Senate hearing, Democrats had many of those questions, and Republicans went on the attack. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Chuck Hagel showed up before the armed services panel in good company. Two former Republican chairmen of that committee - retired senators John Warner of Virginia, and Sam Nunn of Georgia - had come along to introduce him. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Nunn is a Democrat.] Nunn assured the senators sitting in judgment of Hagel, that he knew of no one who came closer to having those values a secretary of defense should possess.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

SAM NUNN: I know that Chuck Hagel has a clear worldview, and that it aligns with the mainstream of U.S. foreign and defense policy, and also with President Obama.

WELNA: In an opening statement, Hagel sought to rebut accusations from conservatives that he was soft on Iran. He declared his full commitment to President Obama's goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

CHUCK HAGEL: And as I've said in the past, many times, all options must be on the table to achieve that goal. My policy has always been the same as the president's - one of prevention, not of containment.

WELNA: But an hour and a half later, Hagel had a correction to make.

HAGEL: I've just been handed a note that I misspoke and said I supported the president's position on containment. If I said that, it meant to say that I, obviously, his position on containment - we don't have a position on containment.

WELNA: That did not sit well with Carl Levin, the committee's Democratic chairman.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment - which is that we do not favor containment.

WELNA: Hagel got far harsher treatment from his fellow Republicans. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham went after Hagel, saying: You said the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Name one person, in your opinion, who's intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate.

HAGEL: Well, first, I...

GRAHAM: Name one.

HAGEL: I don't know.

GRAHAM: Well, why would you say it?

HAGEL: I didn't have in mind, a specific person.

GRAHAM: Do you agree it's a provocative statement?

WELNA: Hagel allowed that "influence" would have been a better choice of words than "intimidated." He backtracked further when Texas freshman Ted Cruz quoted him at a 1998 Senate hearing, saying the U.S. has tilted too far towards Israel in the Middle East process.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Do you continue to agree with this position, or is that no longer your position today?

HAGEL: I don't remember that - the context of the hearing, or the speech, or all the things I said in it. No, I don't think the United States is tilted too far to Israel. I support the president's position on Israel.

WELNA: Perhaps no senator showed greater hostility towards Hagel than his onetime friend and fellow Vietnam combat veteran, Arizona Republican John McCain. He asked whether Hagel still thought the 2006 troop surge in Iraq was the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.

HAGEL: If you would like me to explain why I...

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No, I actually would like an answer. Yes or no?

HAGEL: Well, I'm not going to give you a yes or no. I think it's...

MCCAIN: OK.

HAGEL: ...far more complicated than that. As I've already said, my answer is, I'll defer that judgment to history.

WELNA: McCain clearly was not satisfied.

MCCAIN: I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it, is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not.

WELNA: The Armed Services Committee's top Republican, Oklahoma's James Inhofe, declared he'd already made up his mind about Hagel.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: I believe that he's the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time.

WELNA: The day proved a rough ride for Hagel, one raising even more uncertainty about President Obama's choice for defense secretary.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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