WASHINGTON - The White House on Friday dismissed criticism of Chuck Hagel's hesitant congressional testimony and insisted that it expects the Senate to confirm him as defense secretary.
One day after Hagel was roughed up in a grueling confirmation hearing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Hagel did a "fine job" and the Obama administration would be stunned if Republicans tried to block the nomination of a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and former two-term GOP senator.
"The president believes Sen. Hagel will make an excellent secretary of defense and that he will be confirmed and he looks forward to working with Sen. Hagel in that position as we continue to advance our national security priorities," Carney told reporters.
If confirmed, Hagel, 66, would be the lone Republican in President Barack Obama's Cabinet, the first Vietnam veteran to be defense secretary and the first enlisted man to take the post.
Hagel seemed ill-prepared under withering cross-examination from Senate Armed Services Committee Republicans in nearly eight hours of testimony. He was repeatedly pressed about past statements and votes on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons.
Senate Democrats, who hold the majority, continue to stand behind the nomination, and no Democrat has said he or she would vote against the president's pick for his second-term national security team.
But Republican opposition grew on Friday as Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the committee; Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr announced that they would vote against Hagel. About a dozen Republicans have said they will oppose their former colleague and several others have indicated that they are likely to vote no.
So far, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is the only Republican to announce his support for Hagel.
Burr said the hearing "confirmed for me many of the concerns I had about the nomination." Kirk said his existing concerns combined with Hagel's testimony were the reason for his opposition.
Blunt said "Hagel's answers before the committee were simply too inconsistent, particularly as they related to Iran and Israel. The idea that we can contain a nuclear Iran and his view that we should not have unilateral sanctions are just wrong and are too dangerous for us to try."
In fact, Hagel corrected his statement about containment of Iran and said all options, including military action, should be on the table to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
While Blunt announced his opposition, he signaled he would not support any effort to block the nomination. Blunt is a member of the GOP leadership team, and his reluctance to wage a filibuster fight is a positive sign for Hagel amid the threat of efforts to block the nomination.
Democrats hold a 14-12 edge on the committee, which could vote as early as Thursday, and a 55-45 advantage in the full Senate. Democrats would need five Republican votes to stop a filibuster, and GOP lawmakers often have spoken about the right of a president to get an up-or-down vote on his nominee.
Carney did not mention Republican Sen. John McCain by name, but he clearly was referring to him when he questioned the "badgering ... over issues like, `why did you disagree with me over Iraq?' "
"Now somewhat bizarrely, given that we have 66,000 Americans in uniform in Afghanistan, senators yesterday in the hearing for the nomination of a secretary of defense asked very few questions about that active war," Carney said. "Instead they wanted to re-litigate the past. That argument will continue, no doubt."
The nominee's fiercest exchange came with McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran and onetime close friend over Iraq.
The Arizona Republican pressed Hagel on whether he was right or wrong about his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan.
"Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?" McCain asked.
"I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out," Hagel said as the two men talked over each other.
"The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge," McCain insisted.
Unable to elicit a simple response, McCain said the record should show that Hagel refused to answer. And he made it clear that he would have the final word — with his vote, which he said would be influenced by Hagel's refusal to answer yes or no.
"I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it," McCain told Hagel.