Hagel: Obama picks a fight he'll win

He provokes the right -- and maybe even some Democrats -- with his Pentagon choice. But he should have the numbers

Published January 7, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

It looks like President Obama is about to spark a nomination fight by selecting Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary. The question is how serious the fight will be – a half-hearted effort by a handful of John McCain/Lindsey Graham-types or a full-fledged partisan war with the potential to peel off a few Democrats and jeopardize the nomination.

Let’s start by making clear that the odds favor Hagel’s confirmation. The vast majority of Cabinet nominees sail through the process and only the occasional few are confronted with pockets of resistance that complicate their journey. Even rarer are nominees from the latter group who are ultimately rejected by the Senate, something that last happened in 1989 with John Tower, George H.W. Bush’s first choice to run the Pentagon. The most recent rejected Cabinet nominee before that? Admiral Lewis Strauss, who was nominated for Commerce secretary by Dwight Eisenhower, only to be turned down in 1959 on a 49-46 Senate vote. Also in Hagel’s favor: the party of the president nominating him controls the Senate 55-45.

But there are already Republicans publicly vowing to oppose Hagel. Graham said on Sunday that it would be an “in your face” pick by Obama and called Hagel “out of the mainstream” on foreign policy issues. And because much of the opposition to Hagel will rest on charges of insufficient support for Israel and sensitivity to the threat posed by Iran, there’s at least the potential that staunchly pro-Israel Democrats might be swayed to oppose him. Chuck Schumer, for instance, pointedly refused to endorse Hagel in a recent Sunday show appearance. There’s also Hagel’s 1998 characterization of James Hormel, Bill Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, as “openly, aggressively gay.” That was enough for Barney Frank, who is seeking an interim Senate appointment from Massachusetts, to go on the record opposing Hagel recently.

On Sunday, Josh Marshall made a succinct argument for why all of this won’t end up adding up to much if and when the Senate takes up Hagel’s nomination:

Will Republicans uniformly oppose a former member of their own caucus when the issues at stake are complaints that look comical when held up to the light of day? One who was one of the top foreign policy Republicans in the Senate? I doubt it.

Will Democratic senators deny a reelected President Obama his choice for one of the top four cabinet positions when he is quite popular and the expansion of their caucus is due in significant measure to his popularity? Please. Chuck Schumer will oppose the President? Not likely.

Let’s take these points one at a time. In terms of Republicans, it actually doesn’t seem that hard to imagine the GOP uniformly opposing Hagel. Sure, he was once one of their point men on foreign policy, but his move away from the GOP in the last half-decade or so is rooted in foreign policy. So it’s doubtful he’ll get much credit on that front. And there’s no reservoir of goodwill for Hagel among the broader GOP base, which regards him as a traitor for his association with Obama. In a party where fear of a primary challenge is a bigger consideration than ever for elected officials, the Hagel nomination could easily become a test of purity. Plus, Republicans are perpetually plotting to make inroads with Jewish voters (that they keep failing to succeed seems to stop them); perhaps they’ll see an opportunity to expand their base by attacking Hagel over Israel.

The silver lining for Obama is that it’s a lot harder to imagine Republicans organizing a filibuster of Hagel’s nomination. They’d have the votes to pull it off if they wanted to, but the pressure to allow a straight up/down vote would be enormous. Here is where the relatively weak case against Hagel could come into play; how many Republican senators will feel compelled to vote “no” on his nomination even if they don’t actually mind the idea of him being Defense secretary? To the extent there’s a precedent here, it favors allowing a vote of the full Senate: After initially threatening to do so, Democrats backed off a threat to filibuster John Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general in 2001. (Ashcroft was then approved on a 58-42 vote, with eight Democrats breaking ranks.)

That leaves the matter of Hagel’s Democratic support. Counting Angus King and Bernie Sanders, they have 55 votes in the new Senate, so if Republicans were to unanimously oppose Hagel, Democrats would have six votes to spare. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar lists seven Senate Democrats who might conceivably be turned against Hagel because of his views on Israel and Iran. And you might as well throw into the mix Joe Manchin, who might see a home state political benefit in siding with the GOP in a high-profile partisan debate. And maybe a few others. Still, as Marshall wrote, it’s reasonable to assume that the pressure on Democrats not to buck their president on this pick will outweigh whatever pressure comes from the other direction. And if one or two Democrats want to vote “no” just to prove a point, that won’t be fatal.

When Tower went down in 1989, the allegations of heavy drinking and womanizing weren't really what did him in; the partisan composition of the Senate did. Democrats controlled it 55-45, so even though only one Republican (Nancy Kassebaum) abandoned him, Tower still fell short of the magic number. If nothing else, that same factor will probably save Hagel.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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