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Hagel and the Limits of Civility

After months of political debate the Senate Armed Services Committee may bring the Chuck Hagel saga closer to a resolution today. Yesterday, committee chair Carl Levin said he would schedule a vote for this afternoon but the ranking Republican member seems prepared to fight the former senator’s nomination as secretary of defense to the bitter end. With Democrats closing ranks behind the president’s choice to head the Pentagon, there doesn’t seem much chance that Hagel can be stopped in the committee. And with some Republicans, including John McCain, vowing not to support a filibuster of the nomination, it seems all but certain that Hagel will be confirmed perhaps as early as this week.

McCain made no secret of his antipathy for his former friend during a stormy confirmation hearing in which Hagel stumbled badly giving the impression that he was both unprepared and unqualified for the position. But McCain’s opposition to a GOP walkout from a committee vote as well as the filibuster may prevent opponents from using procedural tactics to stop the nomination going forward. The Arizonan feels that allowing the argument about Hagel to blow up relationships between the two parties in the committee or an attempt to stop the confirmation via filibuster —something that has rarely happened to any Cabinet nominee — would be unjustified. His concern for keeping things civil in the Senate deserves respect but given the stakes involved in this nomination, those Republicans who will seek to use every trick in the book to stop Hagel are justified.

Senator McCain is right to note that any attempt to raise the bar to Cabinet nominations to the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster rather than a simple majority may someday boomerang on the Republicans. Though Democrats are currently speaking as if their hold on the White House and the Senate is permanent that is nonsense and a GOP president and Senate majority will likely fume over a future Democratic attempt to thwart a nomination they wish to push through via a filibuster. But the escalation of filibuster tactics that the Democrats pioneered a decade ago against George W. Bush’s judicial nominees is a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle except by a rules change that neither party really wants.

It should also be pointed out that the bygone era of bipartisan civility in Congress that McCain understandably yearns to bring back is only possible when both parties put forward plausible nominees. The impulse to defer to the president’s choices for senior posts makes sense so long as the people they are being asked to rubber stamp are not outliers on policy or as transparently incompetent as Hagel.

Levin and other Democrats have taken umbrage at attempts by Jim Inhofe, the committee’s ranking member and other Republicans to make Hagel jump through hoops that other cabinet nominees may not have been asked to do. But the spectacle of a would-be secretary of defense speaking of his post as not being one that sets policy or being unable to define or articulate the administration’s stand on containing a nuclear Iran undermines any notion that good manners requires Republicans to pull their punches on Hagel.

The problem with Hagel is not just that his past opposition to getting tough on Iran as well as his boasts about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” should have made his nomination unthinkable. It is that by putting him in charge of the Pentagon, President Obama is sending an unfortunate signal to Iran that his threats about using force are merely bluffs intended for domestic consumption.

It is possible that Hagel’s presence at the Pentagon does not mean that the president will back down on Iran and that he was picked solely because the White House saw him as someone who could best implement drastic cuts in defense spending. Given Hagel’s bumbling in front of the committee it’s hard to imagine how he will manage such a vast department let alone pull off an efficient downsizing of the armed forces. But whether the president intended it or not, the world has interpreted Hagel’s elevation in the context of the looming conflict with Iran. In doing so, Obama has encouraged Iranian intransigence and heightened the chances for conflict.

In such a context, any Republican effort to derail his confirmation that falls within the boundary of existing rules must be seen as both justified and necessary. It may be that the willingness of pro-Israel Democrats such as Chuck Schumer to accept the nomination of one of the Jewish state’s antagonists means that nothing will prevent Hagel from taking office. But McCain’s qualms notwithstanding, Inhofe and the GOP caucus are right to pull out the stops to stop him.


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