Chuck Hagel is President Obama's nominee for Defense secretary. (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The persistent opposition by Senate Republicans to Chuck Hagel's nomination as Defense secretary isn't just about his national security views. It's also deeply personal.
President Obama's choice of the former Republican senator, whose nomination received another setback Thursday, looked, on the surface, like a gesture of bipartisanship. But to many of his former colleagues, it's anything but.
Hagel was seen as a tacit supporter of Obama in 2008 rather than Republican nominee John McCain — one of the senators key to his chances of confirmation. Just last year, Hagel endorsed the Democratic candidate for Senate in his home state of Nebraska against Deb Fischer, who went on to win and is now a vote against him.
In Washington's highly polarized environment, the Hagel nomination has become an object lesson in the dangers of crossing the partisan divide. Hagel "was anti his own party and people. People don't forget that," McCain said in a Fox News interview. "You can disagree, but if you're disagreeable, people don't forget that."
"In the name of bipartisanship, the president selected a nominee who really stuck a finger in the eyes of a number of Republicans," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former aide to President Clinton. "If you're seen as a turncoat or an apostate or a traitor, then that's bound to have an effect on the mood of the proceedings."
White House officials had pushed for a confirmation vote before the Senate left town Thursday evening for 10 days, but Republicans blocked an effort to end debate on the nomination, saying they needed more time.
The delay means Hagel will miss a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels next week — an embarrassment to the administration. It also will give opponents more time to try to find new, damaging information about the nominee.
A majority of senators, virtually all of them Democrats, say they support Hagel's confirmation. But Republicans have used their ability to filibuster to force Democrats to round up 60 votes. On Thursday they fell one vote short.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he would try again a week from Tuesday, and McCain and other Republicans said they expected Hagel would be confirmed at that point.
Earlier in the day, White House officials sent a letter to McCain and two other Republicans, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, providing information about administration activities in the days after the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi in September — something Graham had insisted on. McCain said the letter had helped move the process forward.
Like Secretary of State John F. Kerry, another Vietnam veteran whom Obama selected for his second-term Cabinet, Hagel shares the president's cautious views about foreign military entanglements. The former senator's opposition to the troop "surge" in Iraq and controversial statements about Iran and Israel have given Republicans an opportunity to dramatize their concerns about Obama's defense and foreign policy.
Partisan politics, including Hagel's activities in support of Democratic candidates in recent elections, have also come into play.
In 2010, Hagel campaigned in Pennsylvania with the Democratic Senate nominee who wound up losing to Republican Pat Toomey. Toomey has said he has "deep concerns" about Hagel's nomination and is counted as a virtually certain "no" vote.
Graham, who has been one of Hagel's most outspoken critics, faces the threat of a primary challenge from the right next year and may have shored himself up by taking a leading role against Hagel.
Meanwhile, the confirmation of another senior member of Obama's national security team, John Brennan as CIA director, has been delayed for at least two weeks. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, postponed a committee vote and said Brennan needed to satisfy requests for more information about the Benghazi attack and about secret Justice Department memos on targeted killings.
Obama is hardly the first recent president to run into problems getting nominees confirmed. But the latest fights are bracing reminders, if any were needed, of the limits on his political power in spite of his reelection.
In today's deeply divided Washington, "you don't rule the town the way that FDR did or that Lyndon Johnson did for two years. You just don't," Galston said. "The default setting is partisan conflict, and you have to think very hard about how you avoid that conflict so as not to trigger it. I think it's obvious that Obama could have chosen someone much less controversial as Defense secretary."
Nervous that momentum against Hagel was growing, an administration official insisted Thursday that he would still be confirmed.