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Bipartisan Comity Fraying on Defense Panel

Benghazi, Hagel nomination create deep discord on Senate Armed Services Committee

The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee insist that despite highly partisan clashes over the handling of the killings of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and the nomination of a new Defense secretary, the panel should have no difficulty reaching agreement on a defense policy bill later this year.

But the caustic exchanges at a meeting Tuesday, where the panel voted to approve Chuck Hagel as the next Pentagon chief, left some Democrats flabbergasted. The tension peaked when Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz implied, without offering any evidence, that Hagel might have received indirect payments from nations such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea, and the panel’s new ranking Republican, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, suggested Hagel was “cozy” with Iran.

“I want to put on the record that this senator feels that Sen. Cruz has gone over the line,” Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a senior member of the panel, said in an unusual personal rebuke of a fellow member.

Nelson went on to offer a veiled rebuke of Inhofe’s more partisan approach to leading the panel’s Republicans, particularly compared with his predecessor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“And I would encourage this committee to take the role model of its former chairman, Sen. McCain, who can get into it hot and heavy, but at the end of the day, he’s going to respect the other person’s motives.”

Indeed, McCain was quickly prompted to intercede. “I just want to make it clear Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. He served his country,” McCain said. “And no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity.”

The exchange between Nelson and Cruz was one of several that highlighted the level of deeply personal discord that has developed among senators and has caused observers to question whether the panel could implode later in the year. Indeed, this was underscored when Republicans repeatedly called on Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who denied the requests, to put off the vote until Hagel had answered all of the Republicans’ queries about his earnings.

Hagel has angered Republicans over statements he has made relating to Iran, Israel, nuclear disarmament and possible defense cuts. But at the core of much Republican anger was the Nebraska Republican’s turn against the Iraq War.

Levin was unusually pointed at times in addressing GOP members, particularly after Cruz said Levin’s refusal to support his demands “sets a dangerous precedent.”

Levin responded tersely: “The precedent which would be set here would be by your unilaterally changing these rules that we have followed. If this nominee or any other nominee wishes to respond to your request, which goes beyond the rules, they’re free to do so. But we’re not going to accept a change in the rules that applies to one nominee.”

Levin then said, “We are not going to accept your suggestion and innuendo that there is some kind of a conflict of interest here because there is not evidence of a conflict of interest.”

On Wednesday, after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed for cloture on Hagel’s nomination, setting up a Friday vote, Levin took the unusual step of scolding Cruz on the Senate floor. Cruz’s accusation, Levin said, “is offensive to those of us who have served with him and is beneath the dignity of the United States Senate.”

Appealing to Courtesy

As ranking member emeritus, McCain appears to be trying to maintain some of the comity that used to be the norm for the Armed Services panel.

In a statement issued earlier in the week, McCain called out some members of the panel who might be considering a walkout of the executive meeting. In an extraordinary comment, McCain said such a gesture would be disrespectful to Levin.

Later, in an interview, Levin said he appreciated McCain’s statement.

“I thought McCain’s comment was very appreciated but very much in keeping with the spirit, the bipartisan spirit, of this committee,” he said. “I think every member of the committee realizes there is going to be differences over issues, and the importance of our work is too great to allow differences over issues to seep into clashes over personality. We’re not going to let it happen.”

These comments were made, however, before the executive meeting.

Inhofe also insisted that he and Levin have worked well together and that these recent conflicts are more coincidental to the issues the panel has had to wrestle with at the outset of the legislative year. His aides also point to Inhofe’s tenure as ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, when he was able to work with California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer to deliver bipartisan bills to the Senate floor.

But Inhofe’s propensity for controversial statements has elicited visceral responses from Democrats, and Tuesday’s executive meeting was no different.

“I’d say he’s endorsed by” Iran, Inhofe said of Hagel during the meeting. “You can’t get any cozier than that.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., when given the chance, addressed Inhofe directly. “I’ve got to tell you, Sen. Inhofe, be careful because you might have an organization endorse you that you find abhorrent,” she said. “And then … would I have the right to say you were cozy with them? What if some horrible organization said that you were the best guy they knew?”

Out of Balance

Dozens of times throughout the hearing, lawmaker after lawmaker cited the panel’s history of bipartisanship, but each such note served as a signal that all was not smooth among the lawmakers.

“This committee has had to deal with difficult issues before,” Levin said at one point. “There have been occasions when we have actually split on a party line. We have survived those very, very strongly. We will survive this one, and we’ll be just as strong coming out as we were going in.”

Still, in an interview, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., called the clashes on the panel “worrisome and bothersome.”

When asked whether these early conflicts could “spoil the water” for future work on the defense authorization bill, he said, “I hope not.”

“I respect Sen. McCain and Sen. Lindsey [Graham, R-S.C.] and all the people who have been so vocal. I respect the living daylights out of them because they are that committed and that good,” he said. “With that, I also hope they respect some of us might have a different view.”

A senior congressional official said there was confidence that Levin and Inhofe would be able to find a balance together eventually.

“Sometimes it takes time when you have somebody new sitting next to you to be as comfortable as the last person who sat next to you for many years,” the official said. “That is just natural.”

A Lot to Fight Over

But as the nation faces significant fiscal hurdles, further defense reductions almost certainly will cause strife among members of the panel. Republicans oppose further reductions, as do Democrats. But there are deep divisions among the two parties’ leaders as to how deficit spending is cut. This could make it difficult to agree on the outlines of a defense authorization bill.

Levin has argued strongly for a balanced approach that should include cuts and revenue increases. Inhofe, however, believes most cuts should fall on entitlements.

Meanwhile, Graham insists that some of the clashes are more coincidental. But in the next breath, he said, “I just think our Democratic friends need to up their game in terms of questioning.”

Graham charged that Democrats are going easy on the administration over the Benghazi attack, in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed last September. He has threatened to hold up the Hagel nomination until he gets answers to questions he has about the issue.

Graham argued that he and McCain joined Democrats in insisting on an investigation of the George W. Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques. But, he complained, in an interview after a hearing last week with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Chairman Levin, who I respect greatly, didn’t ask one question about Benghazi.”

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