Feb 26, 2013 1:00 PM by Halimah Abdullah - CNN

Hagel confirmation battle: bruised but standing

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's rocky and inauspicious path to the Pentagon could haunt him if he doesn't watch his step.

"If people feel Hagel makes a mistake in the future, they will come after him even harder than if this ugly process of recent weeks hadn't happened," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy."

Hagel's nomination has been subject to harsh criticism from some Republicans over past statements on sensitive political and national security matters. A shaky performance at his Senate confirmation hearing and subsequent political wrangling over his selection and on unrelated matters have not helped his case.

Nevertheless, his nomination easily cleared a Senate test vote, 71-27, on Tuesday, breaking Republican attempts to delay consideration further and setting up what is expected to be a final vote in favor of his confirmation later in the day.

"He won't be damaged goods---at least not compared with the damage we've already done ourselves through the sequestration dilemma we now face," O'Hanlon said, referring to the latest budget drama now consuming Washington.

"That problem, not at all of his making, will trump bad feelings about him in the coming weeks and change the conversation," he said.

Those bad feelings about Hagel stem, in part, from his 2007 comments that the "Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers." Republicans who are already uncomfortable with President Barack Obama's policies toward Israel are uncomfortable with a defense secretary holding such views.

The decorated Vietnam veteran's criticism of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, and his past positions on Iran and on U.S. military intervention also raised red flags with his opponents.

In 1998, he spoke about an ambassadorial nominee as being "openly, aggressively gay," remarks for which he has since apologized.

And Hagel hasn't been sparing in his criticism of conservative and GOP figures, saying radio show hosts like Rush Limbaugh "try to rip everybody down" but "don't have any answers," and labeling George W. Bush as callous on Iraq when he was president.

Last week, 15 GOP senators sent a letter to Obama calling on him to withdraw Hagel's nomination.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a fierce Hagel critic, did not sign the letter.

But he has led the charge against him in the Senate, stalling the nomination at one point in exchange for more information from the White House on the deadly September terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

"I don't believe Chuck Hagel, who is a friend of mine, is qualified to be secretary of defense. But I do believe that elections have consequences, unfortunately, and the president of the United States was re-elected," McCain said on "State of the Union.

That sentiment that has gained traction in conservative circles.

"There is simply no way to sugar coat it Senator Hagel's performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was remarkably inept and we should not be installing a defense secretary who is obviously not qualified for the job and who holds dangerously misguided views on some of the most important issues facing national security policy for our country," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

There is no small amount of politics behind the Hagel pushback, some political experts say.

"There is an element of strategic calculation going on here," Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University said recently. "They see him as being more vulnerable and they have a chance to stop this nomination or embarrass the president or at least make it more difficult for him."

Some Republicans also believe that Hagel, like Susan Rice, was vulnerable, according to political experts.

Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state after drawing heavy criticism from McCain and other Republicans over her public statements about the Benghazi attack.

A Democratic proponent of Hagel's, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said Sunday the president's choice to head the Pentagon was receiving undue criticism from Republicans.

"The president wants him in the room as he's making important decisions. There's no question about his integrity of character. I think the president deserves to have the Cabinet he wants as long as the person is qualified," she said on "Fox News Sunday."

"He's qualified, and I think it's despicable how his character has been impugned by some people through innuendo and inference," McCaskill added.

The consternation over Hagel's confirmation has been "kabuki theater," said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

"The political divisions that dictated the pace and twists of his confirmation process pre-date him and will post-date his confirmation," Rothkopf said. "The reality is that Hagel won't drive (defense) policy, the president and Hill politics will."

And time will heal even these political wounds, Rothkopf said.

"The margin of his confirmation victory won't impact this in any way except perhaps in terms of rhetoric," he said. "It's time we ... confirm him and get to the real issues impacting our national security --- from resolving budget issues to devising appropriate plans to deal with getting out of Afghanistan and facing new threats as they emerge."

CNN's Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.


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