Washington — Sen. Richard Blumenthal Monday said he’s not sold on President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
“I respect the president’s right to select Cabinet members, but I have a responsibility as a member of the Armed Services Committee to ask Senator Hagel’s views on critical defense policy issues confronting our nation,” Blumenthal said. “I will reserve judgment until the (confirmation) hearing, when I will ask about such issues — the submarine and Joint Strike Fighter programs, the Afghanistan War, and others.”
Blumenthal never served with Hagel because the Nebraska senator retired two years before Blumenthal assumed office in 2011. Nevertheless, Blumenthal said, “I have tremendous respect for his extraordinary, distinguished public service, and his heroism in uniform.”
Freshman Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also never served with Hagel. But he appears more supportive of the nomination than Blumenthal.
“Senator Murphy believes Senator Hagel is a strong nominee for Defense Secretary,” said Murphy press secretary Ben Marter. “Hagel has decades of foreign policy experience, is a decorated Vietnam veteran, and would be the first enlisted soldier to serve in that role. Senator Murphy looks forward to the upcoming confirmation process.”
Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is retiring to his home in California.
Hagel is a former colleague to many in the Senate and a decorated Vietnam veteran. But the 66-year-old Republican maverick has become a lightning rod for criticism from many Republicans and some Democrats for things he has said about gays in the military, Iraq, Iran and Israel.
Hagel opposed gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy directed at gays in the military. He has recently apologized for those positions, but the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights organization, called the apology, “Too Little, Too Late” in a full page ad that ran Monday in the Washington Post.
Hagel was also an early critic of the second Iraq war, breaking with most Republicans, and some are still resentful.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who, like Blumenthal, is a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, called Obama’s choice “an in-your-face-nomination.”
The Armed Forces panel would have to approve the nomination before a confirmation vote is held in the full Senate.
Hagel has advised Obama to open talks with Hamas, a Palestinian group that does not recognize Israel. He has also complained about the influence of the Israel lobby in Washington, saying in a 2008 interview, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
The Nebraska Republican also voted against some sanctions against Iran.
If the Senate approves Hagel’s nomination, he would be the second Republican in Obama’s Cabinet, joining Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP lawmaker.