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Chuck Hagel's lackluster performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee will likely equate to a mostly party-line confirmation vote, something that could limit his political capital just when the Pentagon needs it most.
That was the conventional wisdom among defense sources and former congressional aides — of all political stripes — who agree that Hagel, during his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, offered enough substantive answers and effective defenses of his own record to avoid derailing his nomination to become U.S. defense secretary.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters minutes after gaveling closed the eight-hour confirmation hearing that he believes Hagel bolstered his case to run the Defense Department.
Levin gave Hagel high marks for his confirmation performance, saying his answers were strongest on "the security needs of the country" and "the impacts of sequestration … on the Defense Department." The chairman also credited Hagel for "clear" answers on foreign policy vision and confronting Iran.
"I thought he did very well. I thought he kept his cool. I think his experience was both modestly and eloquently described," Levin told reporters. "I think his answers were honest and forthright and that he did very well.
But GOP senators used words like "inconsistent," "contradictory" and "weak" to describe Hagel's rocky confirmation performance. Republicans said Hagel did little to assuage their concerns that he would advise President Barack Obama from being tougher on Iran and that he is too anti-Israel to be defense secretary.
The magic number is 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, and the pursuit of each vote is already underway.
"I hope there may be some who were skeptical, but who were undecided before this hearing, will look at him in another light," Levin said. "I think there are a whole lot of people in the Senate who don't have a good idea of him. … There are a lot of undecided votes."
Levin echoed Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who said all 55 Democratic senators would vote for Hagel.
"I don't think he's going to lose any Democratic votes — that we know of," Levin said. "I think there's at least a few Republicans who've already said publicly that they [will] support his nomination."
Specifically, Levin pointed to GOP Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But a Murkowski aide said the next day she is "still undecided," adding Murkowski is "reviewing all eight hours of testimony."
Another possible Republican yes vote could be retiring Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, one of the few GOP panel members who had a non-contentious exchange with Hagel during the hearing. A Chambliss aide told Defense News on Feb. 1 that he has yet to decide how he will vote.
Former senior Senate aides who still follow the chamber closely said if Hagel's Democratic support holds, they will closely monitor the thinking of a handful of Republicans. To override a filibuster attempt, Senate Democratic leaders would need to add five GOP members to their 55-person caucus.
Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general and former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director who assisted with Hagel's preparation, said he will keep a close eye on Republicans such as Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and John McCain of Arizona.
"I don't see any risks to his confirmation," Punaro said Feb. 1. "I think when people look at the substance of the hearing and his qualifications, they'll support him.
Blunt announced Feb. 1 he will vote against Hagel but would oppose any effort to mount a nomination-killing filibuster.
"That's a positive sign that they recognize someone that with his record and experience deserves an up-or-down vote in the United States Senate," Punaro said. "And I think he'll prevail — again, because of the substance of his answers."
Punaro and others said McCain, despite a testy exchange with his old friend during the hearing, might still vote yes.
But even with a few GOP supporters, sources are predicting a mostly party line vote. And none predicted Hagel would get more than 70 votes on the Senate floor. And that kind of outcome could come back to haunt the Pentagon and White House.
"If it is a party line vote, or close to it, it will weaken him in the job. Had he escaped the hearing relatively unscathed and gotten a dozen or so GOP senators, it wouldn't be an issue a year from now," said Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and a former Senate defense aide. "Yesterday didn't set Senator Hagel up well at all for budget battles that are coming at him right off the start. … To cut the deals he's going to have to cut, it takes political capital.
"The result of his performance is Congress now senses weakness with Senator Hagel," she said. "Lawmakers, and the [defense] authorizers in particular, are going to try to take back some of what they gave away over the last 12 years. They haven't been able to do that with the last three defense secretaries, whom they couldn't strong arm."