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What Happens Next in the Hagel Battle?

There’s no doubt Senator Chuck Schumer’s endorsement of Obama’s defense secretary nominee gave a boost to Chuck Hagel. But it’s premature to claim Hagel is now headed for a certain victory. First, while Schumer makes it easier for pro-Israel Democrats to support Hagel, he is not the final word in Democratic opposition. Others will still need persuading, and some say Schumer’s 90-minute about-face wasn’t exactly convincing.

“I have a difficult time believing that Democrats will be able to follow Chuck Schumer’s lead of saying that they were reassured on issues as wide-ranging as his ability to implement the Commander-in-Chief’s ordered dismantling of [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], all the way to his misjudgment on engaging Iran and Syria, all the way through his decades-long denigration of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship — all in 90 minutes,” a senior official at a Washington D.C. Jewish organization said. “By setting the bar so high, Schumer may actually have made it difficult for Democrats to find excuses to discover their support for Hagel.” 

One name that immediately comes to mind is Senator Bob Menendez. Menendez has spent much of his Senate career painstakingly crafting Iran sanctions policy, and Hagel’s nomination is a direct slap in the face. While Hagel has suddenly disavowed his previous objections to sanctions, Menendez may be more difficult to convince than Schumer–particularly since the New Jersey senator has gone to battle with the administration in the past over this very issue.

“The only other chance [to sink Hagel’s nomination], barring any major revelation at the confirmation hearings … is if Menendez said something,” said one Jewish Democratic operative who supports Obama’s nominee.

Another obstacle for Hagel is Republican opposition. It’s unlikely the nomination would be blocked without any Democratic support, but the GOP certainly has the ability to do it. Senate Republicans haven’t broken unity on this issue, and leadership appears to be on board so far.

According to multiple Republican Senate sources, a filibuster isn’t off the table. Under that scenario, the GOP would need 41 votes to block Hagel’s confirmation.

“If Republicans filibuster, I don’t think [Democrats will] get to 60,” said an aide to a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There is also no way to predict what will come out before or during the confirmation hearings. Hagel’s record is still being vetted by his opponents. Senator Bob Corker suggested earlier this week that former staffers for Hagel–who has a reputation as a temperamental boss–are coming forward with information about him. If staffers testify, or if Hagel responds poorly to questioning by the committee, that could shake up the confirmation battle. So while Schumer’s support will make it more difficult to block Hagel, that doesn’t mean the fight is over.


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