Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mian Kursheed)
WASHINGTON - Chuck Hagel's cautious testimony may not have won converts during his contentious nomination hearing for US defense secretary, but it appeared on Friday not to have cost support he will need to be confirmed as the new Pentagon chief.
Republicans hammered Hagel when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, with some of the fiercest questioning coming from those who had served alongside him during his two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska.
Critics said Hagel performed poorly at times, speaking hesitantly, seeming tired and often unprepared for some of the sharpest queries about over his past controversial statements on Israel, Iran and US nuclear strategy.
But the White House stood by Hagel on Friday and none of the Senate's Democrats have publicly abandoned him, meaning minority Republicans would have to resort to procedural tactics to try to block his confirmation.
Hagel's nomination appears likely to clear its first hurdle - approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee - on a straight party-line vote. The earliest that vote could come is Thursday, Feb. 7.
Hagel's performance seemed to embolden some Republicans to come out strongly against him.
Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois issued a statement on Friday criticizing Hagel's view of Iran and his testimony that he supported US President Barack Obama's policy of "containment of Iran." Kirk said he would not vote for him.
Passed a note during the hearing, Hagel said he had misspoken and corrected himself. Obama says his policy is stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not containing Tehran after it does.
But other Republican senators said that, while they will vote against Hagel, they will not stop his nomination from reaching the Senate floor, where it needs a simple majority to pass.
"Certainly my strong inclination would be that this is a vote that should be done by a majority rather than a 60-vote standard," Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said on Fox News.
He referred to the 60 votes - all 55 Democrats, plus five Republicans - Hagel supporters would need to clear a procedural hurdle known as a filibuster.
Republican aides said they had had no word that any senator planned a filibuster, which has not been used against a Cabinet nominee since 1975.
One senior Republican aide said a successful filibuster seemed unlikely. Getting five Republicans to oppose one "doesn't seem to be an impossible hurdle to clear," the aide said.
Democrats praised Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who would be the first former enlisted man to lead the Defense Department.
"He'll be fine," a senior Senate Democratic aide said. "Nothing happened yesterday that has a shelf life beyond the 24-hour news cycle."
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who is on the Armed Services panel, said on MSNBC he was convinced Hagel was qualified to lead the Pentagon after what he termed a "very tough, grueling" day of testimony.
Democrats complained that some Republicans were disrespectful in their questioning of Hagel, 66, which focused on his views of Israel, Iran, the Iraq war, and US nuclear strategy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the number of "yes" votes for Hagel had increased since the hearing - which began at 9:30 a.m. and did not end until almost 6:30 p.m.
"I think Senator Hagel answered the questions appropriately and did a fine job," Carney said, asserting that some of the lines of questioning had amounted to "badgering" of Hagel by some senators.
Within the Obama administration, there was a view that Hagel's performance could have been better, but that officials had seen no indication that his chances had been diminished by the difficult confirmation hearing.
The White House was largely satisfied with how Hagel had done, a US official said.
At the Pentagon, where Hagel had spent many hours preparing for the hearing, some officials said privately that they did not see anything surprising in the attacks that echoed opponents' statements against Hagel since Obama nominated him.
Hagel has been the subject of an intense lobbying effort seeing to label him as an enemy of Israel, soft on Iran and opponent of equal rights for gays and lesbians in the military.
So far, he has picked up scant Republican support. Republican Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran has said he will back the nomination and others have not ruled it out.
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