The U.S. Senate has long been described as America’s most exclusive club.
Only 100 elected officials comprise it, and each state, with two members, has equal influence. Small Rhode Island has just as many votes on Senate legislation as does populous California.
It has its own rules of decorum, including the famed filibuster that allows a single senator to bring legislation to a grinding halt. It’s been described as the saucer in which hot tea from the cup of the House is cooled.
And usually it’s a good jumping off place for White House nominations for various posts and positions. For instance, Sen. John Kerry, the former Democratic nominee for president who challenged President George W. Bush, is expected to get favorable treatment from Democrats and Republicans alike when he becomes the next secretary of state.
But there are exceptions, as we are about to see with former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel.
On paper, nominating Hagel for defense secretary seems like a no-brainer that should win bipartisan support. Hagel served two terms in the Senate and is a Nebraska Republican. He enlisted in Vietnam, where he was a decorated combat veteran, and he would be the first to rise from enlisted soldier to defense secretary. But the nomination was instantly controversial and there’s some question as to whether Hagel will muster enough support to get confirmed.
There are Democrats who have reservations about him, but there is also a deep mistrust for him in the Republican Party.
First, he’ll have to convince senators that he’s not anti-Israel. A 2006 interview brings up the issue he described as “the Jewish lobby,” which he said “intimidates a lot of people. … I’ve always argued against some of the dumb things they do, because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel.” He added: “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”
Hagel says he supports Israel and has never voted in a way to harm it, but some consider his tone with Jewish groups to have been harsh. He’s also said he opposes any military action against Iran — something no one wants, but also something that cannot come off the negotiating table with a nation that has Iran’s track record — and he opposed Bush’s troop surge in 2007 as the worst mistake the American military could make since Vietnam. That surge of troops stabilized Iraq, placing in a direction that allowed U.S. forces to withdraw.
Our guess is that he won’t get any support from Sen. John McCain, whose presidential candidacy Hagel didn’t support in 2008 when Hagel’s wife endorsed Obama. That might cost him more votes with his former GOP colleagues than the other issues he faces.
In the end, the former senator may end up with enough Senate support to win the day. But it won’t be smooth sailing. For Hagel, it’s more likely that choppy waters are just ahead.