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Senate Battle Over Hagel Begins

Aired January 31, 2013 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Key Democrats like Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, shelved their skepticism and now say they support him. But it's not yet decided whether or not all 55 Senate Democrats are in his camp. Hagel has to win over -- assuming he does have all 55, Hagel has to win over just five of his fellow Republicans.

One Republican senator, only one, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has stepped support, reducing the number of Republicans needed for the confirmation, assuming he gets all the Democrats to fore.

But, now, let's go to Capitol Hill, Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, usually, when a president nominates a senator, it's a no brainer. He gets the support of all his former colleagues, we saw that with John Kerry, despite being a liberal Democrat, almost every Republican voted for him to be secretary of state.

You can see Chuck Hagel there in the room greeting his colleagues.

Dana, why has this been a heavy lift for President Obama even though Chuck Hagel is a former senator?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it really is fascinating, because you're exactly right, Jake, that, generally, there is a kind of a deference given to members of the club or former members of the club. That is absolutely been the opposite in the case.

You can see Chuck Hagel there making his way around, getting comfortable, trying to get comfortable at the witness table because this is actually a room and a panel that he's familiar with but on the other side of it.

And the reason to answer your question is because he just basically banked left when he was in the Senate, particularly over the Iraq war, and, of course, more recently with the more pending issues on the world stage like Iran and Afghanistan, he's continued to do so from the perspective of the Republicans. So it really is something that is very unusual to see former member of the Senate body having such trouble with his former colleagues.

TAPPER: Of course, the last time that a nomination like this was voted down was a former senator, John Tower, nominated by the first President Bush to be secretary of defense. That, actually lost that nomination. Today's hearing is a high stakes showdown, of course, not just for Senator Chuck Hagel but also the man who nominated him, former -- I mean, President Barack Obama.

Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin joins me now.

Jessica, President Obama's pick was viewed from the very beginning as a challenge. The criticism even before he was nominated was strong both from the right and the left. How does the White House feel today when it comes to the odds that Senator Hagel, former Senator Hagel will be confirmed?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'll answer your question, Jake. But first, I want to say it's my first time on air with you. So welcome to CNN from me.

TAPPER: Thanks, Jess.

YELLIN: You look very anchory. Do you feeling anchory?

TAPPER: I feel anchory for a few days right now.

YELLIN: It's excellent. It's working for you. We're all into it.

The answer to your question on a serious note is that the White House expects that he will be beaten up and battered and bruised and then confirmed. They know in their view the sense is that Chuck Hagel is sort of standing in as a proxy for President Obama and the Republicans who want to go after the president on foreign policy can do it through Hagel today, through this hearing.

The past positions Hagel has taken where supporters of Israel believe that he has made statements that suggest he's soft on Israel, that he does not support the president's positions on Iran, or that he does not view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, administration officials say he will clearly address all those past statements, put them to bed and make it emphatic that he fully supports the president's positions today.

And yet, they know this will be a drawn out in their view political exercise and then think that he could get confirmed by well more than the 60 percent majority because he's a member of the Senate club and, in the end, they support somebody who they view as a senator and in the White House's view still a mainstream person -- Jake.

TAPPER: We're listening right now as -- we're watching right now as Senator Levin of Michigan introduces the new members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Levin, Democrat of Michigan we see there. Next to Senator Chuck Hagel, was former Republican senator from Virginia John Warner. Chuck Hagel, of course, a former Republican senator himself.

There is former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia -- both Warner and Nunn were known for bucking their party's indifferent ways, Nunn a Democrat, Warner a Republican.

And, Gloria, that's almost one -- I'm sitting here, sorry, with Gloria Borger -- and that's one of the problems that Senator Hagel has is he was an iconoclast and when you buck your party, you end up having very many friends.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Hagel doesn't have a home really in the Senate, you know, because he wasn't a Democrat, and the Republicans thought he wasn't a Republican. So --

TAPPER: But only recently, right? Only recently.

BORGER: Well, only recently. I mean, look -- he voted for the war in Iraq but he said it was the worst vote he had ever -- he had ever made, right? He was against President Obama's surge in Afghanistan.

So, you know, this is somebody who completely did a 360 in terms of foreign policy which is why he and John McCain used to be the band of brothers, right, on Capitol Hill, which is why they've really split very seriously over the years. And that's why he's going to have some really tough questioning today from these Republicans on the committee who believe he's too soft, he's too dovish, too reluctant to use force.

TAPPER: All right. Gloria, let's listen to the hearing right now. The hearing for the confirmation of former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee to be secretary of defense.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D) CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES CMTE: If confirmed, Senator Hagel would be the first former enlisted man and the first veteran of the Vietnam War to serve as secretary of defense. You can't read Senators Hagel's account of his military service and not be impressed by it. As Senator Hagel explained a few years ago, "Probably most fundamental for me when we talk of going to war, we need to think it through carefully, not just for the political and the geopolitical (ph) and the diplomatic and the economic consequences, and those are important. But at least, for me," he said, "this old infantry sergeant thinks about when I was in Vietnam in 1968, someone needs to represent that perspective in our government as well. The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys that come back in the body bags."

Senator Hagel's background provides an invaluable perspective, not only with respect to the difficult decisions and recommendations that a secretary of defense must make, regarding the use of force and the commitment of U.S. troops overseas, but also with respect to the day- to-day decisions that a secretary must make to ensure that our men and women in uniform and their families receive the support and assistance that they need and deserve. It would be a positive message for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in harm's way around the world to know that one of their own holds the highest office in the Department of Defense and that he has the backs.

Senator Hagel, you would be in a position to make key recommendations regarding Afghanistan, where we are down to the pre-surge level of troops with 66,000 military personnel in the country. The secretary of defense is called upon to advise the president on the size and mission of a post-2014 so-called "residual force" and the pace of the draw-down between now and the end of 2014. The key to this transition is ensuring the readiness and ability of Afghan security forces to take over the defense of their own country. I've always believed that that should be our main mission and its key to success.

LEVIN: During my trip to Afghanistan with Senator Jack Reed last month, we heard from U.S. commanders on the ground that Afghan security forces are operating on their own on most operations, including conducting more than 85 percent of operations with limited or no U.S. support in the difficult Regional Command-East. Yet, difficult obstacles remain to the process of reducing our forces and shifting responsibility to Afghan forces, including the difficulty of negotiating a status-of-forces agreement, including recent reports that the Afghan government might slow down a successful program of growing and training the Afghan local police, and including questions about the current plan to reduce the size of the Afghan national security forces from 352,000 to around 230,000 after 2015. We face a number of new and growing threats elsewhere in the world, such as the ongoing threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program and the increasingly destructive civil war in Syria, with the risk that conflict could result in the loss of control over that country's substantial stockpile of chemical weapons.

There's also the continuing instability in other countries affected by the Arab spring-the growth of Al Qaida affiliates in ungoverned regions, including Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa, and the continued unpredictable behavior of the nuclear-armed regime in North Korea. We face these challenges at a time when the DOD budget is under unique pressure as a result of cuts previously agreed upon by Congress, the budgeting by continuing resolution, and the impending threat of a sequester. Secretary Panetta has said that a sequester would be devastating for our military. Senator Hagel's views today on the continuing resolution and the sequester will be of great interest to this committee and to the nation.

Those of us who have served with Senator Hagel in the Senate know that he is a man who is not afraid to speak his mind. Senator Hagel has made a number of statements over the course of his career which committee members will ask him about during today's hearing. For example, Senator Hagel has stated that unilateral sanctions against Iran, quote, "are exactly the wrong approach" and that, quote, "they're the worst thing we can do would be to try to isolate Iran." I believe that while effective multilateral sanctions are preferable, that unilateral sanctions are an important part of the approach that the Obama administration has followed and Congress has supported, and it appears that sanctions are producing tremendous pressure on Iran. Another statement which has raised concern is Senator Hagel's recommendation that we conduct, quote, "direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the government of Iran."

Now, while there's value in communicating with our adversaries, the formulation used by Senator Hagel seemed to imply a willingness to talk to Iran on some issues that I believe most of us would view as non- negotiable, and therefore any willingness to talk to Iran would need to be highly conditional.

Senator Hagel's reassurance to me and my office that he supports the Obama administration's strong stance against Iran is significant. And we look forward to hearing from Senator Hagel today in some depth on that subject.

We will also be interested in hearing Senator Hagel's addressing troubling statements that he has made about Israel and its supporters here in the United States, a statement in 2008 that our policy of non- engagement with the Syrians, quote, "has isolated us more than the Syrians," and a 2009 statement that we should not isolate Hamas, a terrorist organization.

So there's much to be explored at this hearing. But as we struggle with the difficult security challenges facing our nation, the president needs to have a secretary of defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity, and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force.

Senator Hagel certainly has those critically important qualifications to lead the Department of Defense.

Senator Inhofe?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE, ( R) OKLAHOMA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We-first of all, I'd like to echo your remarks about Secretary Panetta and the work that he's done.

I don't see him here today, but I do recall when he was first nominated, I was probably one of the first phone calls to him. And I've enjoyed working with him.

And with Senator McCain, the same way, I'll certainly continue to depend on his counsel.

And you and I have worked very well together in the past. Mr. Chairman, before I continue the opening statement, I'd like to raise a concern about the sufficiency of materials provided to this committee by our nominee.

Senator Hagel was requested to provide the speeches he's delivered over the past five years. Yet his initial submission was for only four speeches, even though, as was noticed by-by Senator Cruz that he had had honoraria for 12 speeches, but submitted four speeches. Well, we received some more, but only last-late last night.

And so, I think it would have been much helpful-a lot more helpful if we had received them before that. And I'm hoping that we'll be able to get that information before we have to cast votes on this nominee. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The president's nomination for Senator Hagel to serve as the next secretary of defense comes at a critical juncture in our military and national security interests.

Secretary Hagel is a good man who has a record of service. I first learned of that when he was first elected, and I have been a great admirer of the time that he spent in Vietnam and with the sacrifices that he made.

And while his service is commendable, the fate of his nomination should be decided by the totality of his record. It is the votes that he's cast and the statements that he's made over the many years of his career that will inform us as to his judgment, his view of America's role in the world, and his view of the military required to support that role.

As I told Senator Hagel in my office some time ago, two weeks-over two weeks ago, I guess it was, that after a long and careful review of his record and the things that he has said and the things that I have personally experienced with him, that we're too philosophically opposed on the pressing issues facing our country, and for me to support his nomination.

And, therefore, I told him I would not be supporting his nomination. His record demonstrates, what I view, as a lack of steadfast opposition to policies that diminish U.S. power and influence throughout the world, as well as a recent trend of policy reversals that seem based on political expediency rather than on core beliefs. The-on many of the security challenges facing the U.S. interests around the world, Senator Hagel's record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream. Too often, it seems, he's willing to subscribe to a world-wide view that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends. I remember quoting Hyerman (ph) who said, "No man survives when freedom fails. The best men rot in filthy jails, and those who cry to please (ph) appease are hanged by those that try to please."

The 2,000, and I-I'm going to mention a few of these things because they're going to come out in this hearing. In 2,000 an overwhelming majority of senators sent a letter to President Clinton -- reaffirming our solidarity with Israel. I was one of them who carried that letter around. I remember it well. And Senator Hagel is one of just four who refused to sign that letter, and I'm sure he'll want to comment about that. In 2001, he was one of just two senators who voted against a bill extending harsh sanctions against Iran.

A year later, he urged the Bush administration to support Iran's membership in the World Trade Organization. Senator Hagel voted against a resolution designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group responsible for killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as a terrorist organization. And, on multiple occasions, he has advocated for direct negotiations with Iran, a regime that continues to repress his people, doggedly pursue a nuclear weapon capability, and employ terrorist proxies, including Hamas, Hezbollah -- threatened the security of Israel in the region.

Senator Hagel has also been an outspoken supporter of the nuclear disarmament and the global zero movement. We're very sensitive to that. We know that the president has said many times he wants a nuclear-free world, and I know that Senator Hagel is right there with him. But at a time when North Korea's belligerent actions threaten our allies with their nuclear capabilities and security of our own nation and that of our allies, why would we want to unilaterally disarm ourselves of nuclear capability.

Of late, however, Senator Hagel has expressed views in meetings with Senate colleagues, I've been informed, and through the press that appeared glaringly at odds with many of the-his long-held positions, particularly with issues dealing with Israel, Iran, and our nuclear arsenal. This apparent willingness to walk by or alter his position, possibly for the sake of political expediency on such important issues is deeply troubling and sends a concerning message to our allies and our adversaries, alike.

Though I respect Senator Hagel, his record to date demonstrates that he would be a staunch advocate for the-the-the continuation of the misguided policies of the president's first term. Retreating from America's unique global leadership role and shrinking the military will not make America safer. On the contrary, it will embolden our enemies, endanger our allies, and provide opportunity for nations that do not share our interest to fill a global leadership vacuum we leave behind. It is for these reasons that I believe that he's the wrong person to lead the Pentagon at this perilous and consequential time. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

LEVIN: Thank you very much, Senator Inhofe.

We have two former chairmen of this committee with us to introduce Senator Hagel. No senator has had two dearer friends or better mentors than I have had with Senators Nunn and Warner. And I just want to welcome them back to this committee. I don't have to tell them they're among dear, dear friends, those of us who've known them and work with them and have worked with them, so it's a real, real treat, actually, to welcome you back to the committee.

And I think I'll call on you, Senator Nunn, first. I think we'll call on you alphabetically. I don't have any better way to do it.

So, Sam-OK-Sam, welcome back.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

(END LIVE FEED)

TAPPER: We're watching the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on President Obama's nominee to be secretary of defense. Former Republican senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel. And right now, two of Senator Hagel's allies former senators Sam Nunn of George, a Democrat, and former Senator John Warner, a Republican of Virginia. Are testifying on his behalf. I'm here with Gloria Borger. Gloria, a few days ago, you sat down with Vice President Joe Biden and one of the things you asked him about was this criticism that the president's new foreign policy team, Senator John Kerry - former Senator John Kerry the new secretary of state and Chuck Hagel, are too dubbish (ph)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Where have they been for four years? The real President Obama has exercised force responsibly as boldly and as bravely as any president in American history. This is a guy who's not backed away. And he's also ended wars that almost every military man out there will tell you we should not be engaged in again. The idea of getting engaged in a ground war in a country that's in transition is not a prescription any military man would suggest. And to suggest that two war heroes, winning (ph) a bronze star, a purple heart, silver star, taking over both the for - excuse me - state department and defense is a - whatever the phrase was - is ridiculous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It's ridiculous. Is it really ridiculous, Gloria? I mean I think even Bush - I'm sorry - I think even Obama White House advisers would acknowledge that Clinton and Gates or Panetta are to the right of Kerry and Hagel.

BORGER: And I think you're right, and I think what this represents is we just saw from Senator Inhofe's complaints about Hagel, whom he says he's not going to support, is that it's a different world view. I mean Inhofe just said that Hagel supports policies that diminish U.S. power. What Hagel would say is that it's a different world right now. This is more realistic. We need to pare back the military. We can't get involved in ground wars, as you just saw the vice president say. So it's really two conflicting world views, two ways to decide how the military changes to fight on different fronts.

TAPPER: And we'll have a lot more about the Senate confirmation hearings for Senator Chuck Hagel, former Republican senator, President Obama's nominee to be secretary of defense in just a few minutes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: I'M Carol Costello. Before we get back to the Senate confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel, we have to bring you to the New York Stock Exchange. The DOW is up 30 points, and is it possible? Could we hit 14,000 Allison Kosik?

ALLISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: You know what? It could happen, but to be honest it may not happen today. You may just see some modest gains like this kind of truck along all day because what investors are really doing is waiting for tomorrow. That's when the big January jobs report comes out. So, we may have to wait till February, because it's the last day of January, to see DOW 14,000. As far as the expectation goes for the jobs report tommorrow, employers are expected to have added 180,000 jobs and if we're surprised to the upside or the downside, you're likely to see a defninitve move that will either push us over that 14,000 mark or pull us away. So we're about, I would say, 60 points away from that 14,000 mark we've got our eye on. We'll keep watching it for you, Carol.

COSTELLO: It would be exciting if it hits it. I'll keep my fingers crossed. Allison Kosik live from the New York Stock Exchange.

Now let's head back to Washington and Jake Tapper. Hi Jake.

TAPPER: Hey Carol, thanks so much.

We're waiting for former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to speak at the confirmation hearing for him. President Obama of course three weeks ago nominated him to be secretary of defense, his third secretary of defense after Bob Gates and Leon Panetta. Senator Hagel of course a very controversial pick.

Let's go now to the Pentagon, Chris Lawrence. One of the reasons, Chris, that Senator Hagel is so controversial is because critics say he would slash the Pentagon budget. He has said he thinks the Pentagon budget is bloated. How tough would it be to calm those concerns today and how crucial is it?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It's pretty important overall, Jake. You've got the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee coming out and saying a secretary of defense's first obligation is to win the budget battle with the White House, and there are some critics who say that Chuck Hagel isn't even in that fight after saying that the Pentagon budget needs to be pared down.

So it'll be interesting to see how much he reveals on whether he would push back against further cuts to the Pentagon budget.

TAPPER: Very interesting, and of course one of the things we're going to be watching in this Senate confirmation hearing of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who we're waiting to hear from, is his relation ship with Senator John McCain. Dana Bash our chief congressional correspondent.

Hagel and McCain used to be best friends. I remember when I was a Cub (ph) reporter in 2000 on the "Straight-Talk Express," rolling through the Hills of New Hampshire and Iowa - well, not Iowa - New Hampshire and South Carolina, Senator Hagel had his own bunk there.

But they have had something of a falling out. Tell us more about that, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, well they were incredibly close. In fact, I want to play for our viewers a moment that really crystallizes the difference between then and now. It was back during the time you were covering him, as was I, back in 2000 him meaning John McCain when he was running for President. Listen to the answer that he gave to a voter when the voter asked who he would put in his cabinet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: As far as Secretary of Defense is concerned, there's a lot of people that -- that could do that. One of them, I think, is Senator Chuck Hagel would -- could do that kind of job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Chuck Hagel. Chuck Hagel was his answer who he would put in his own cabinet there. And now, here we have behind me John McCain getting ready to grill his old friend Chuck Hagel because he simply is worried that he's not the man for that same exact post in President Obama's administration.

The answer to your question fundamentally comes down to what happened in and around Iraq. John McCain was very much a supporter, you'll remember, a proponent of the military surge that he believes saved Iraq -- saved the Iraq war from getting even worse than it was.

And at the time, Chuck Hagel said that it was one of the greatest foreign policy blunders since Vietnam. And it really was their shared experience, Jake, in Vietnam; I mean that's what really drew them together. That's what sent John McCain out to campaign for -- for Hagel's first election back in 1996. But it was that same experience that tore them apart policy wise, on Iraq because Hagel, as an enlisted man, thought that, you know, war should be the last resort. And then you have on the opposite side, McCain who saw war and the Vietnam war.