DENVER – As an unlikely coalition of those on the political left and right appears to be solidifying in opposition to President Obama’s contentious choice to head the Defense Department, Chuck Hagel, many are wondering how Colorado’s two U.S. Senators plan to vote.
Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, are still undecided more than a week after both issued non-committal statements about where they stand on the nomination of Hagel, who is shaping up to be the most acrimonious appointment of Mr. Obama’s nascent second term.
Mr. Bennet and Mr. Udall’s decision to remain on the fence three weeks after Mr. Obama announced the pick may be an indication of the unease the Hagel nomination has caused among some Democrats, many of whom share the same concerns raised by Republicans about Hagel’s controversial views on terrorism and national security issues.
“I look forward to asking him a series of questions about Israel, about Iran — as a major sponsor of the Iran sanctions in the Senate, I am concerned about some of the comments he has made about sanctions in the past,” Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said over the weekend on ABC’s This Week.
When asked if Mr. Hagel would be confirmed by the Senate, Menendez said “we’ll see.”
Other Democrats have joined gay rights organizations in expressing reservations about the Hagel nomination, thanks to well-publicized, anti-gay statements Hagel made as a U.S. Senator.
“I do want to speak with [Hagel], particularly about his [anti-gay] comments 14 years ago, to see if his apology is sincere and sufficient,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) in a recent Politico report. “I want to hear how he’s evolved on this issue in the last 14 years.”
Baldwin was the first person to be elected to the U.S. Senate as an openly gay candidate.
That kind of tepid response to Hagel from many on the political left, coupled with reports that Hagel is not well-liked among his former Senate colleagues, may be one reason that Hagel’s backers have hired the Podesta Group, an influential Washington, D.C. lobbying firm co-founded by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to help push through the nomination.
The Podesta Group represents a number of high-powered clients, including defense contractors Raytheon, Lockheed, and BAE Systems.
As the Wall Street Journal noted this weekend, while those relationships may help ease Hagel’s path with some hesitant lawmakers, they could cause new problems down the road if he is ultimately confirmed as Secretary of Defense.
According to the WSJ report:
The relationship provides a peek into Washington’s standard operating procedure, where clients—occasionally with diverging interests—often turn to the same players to shape Beltway opinion.
The relationship could prove awkward for Mr. Hagel should he win confirmation, some observers said. Podesta Group could “pitch to their clients that they have a friendly secretary of defense that they helped,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that campaigns for more transparency in government.
At the same time, groups on the right like Americans for a Strong Defense, have ramped up their criticism of Hagel, running targeted TV ads – like this one focusing on Udall and Bennet – urging undecided Senators to oppose Hagel’s confirmation.
Udall has so far walked a fine line when it comes to public statements about how he might vote on Mr. Hagel’s confirmation.
“[A]s a general rule, [Senator Udall] feels that the President’s cabinet nominations should be respected,” a Udall spokesman told Denver’s Fox affiliate KDVR last week. “Even so, there are a large number of challenges and critical issues for our national security and our military that the next Secretary of Defense will face, and [Senator Udall] feels that it’s important to actively engage Hagel on those issues.”
“[Senator Udall] looks forward to continuing the discussion at Hagel’s nomination hearing,” the spokesman added.
A spokesman for Senator Bennet told The Denver Post last week that Bennet had not yet met with Mr. Obama’s nominee, but that he was “looking forward to meeting Mr. Hagel to discuss his record and experience.”