ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s U.S. senators praised former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s military experience but withheld judgment on whether they would vote to confirm him as the next secretary of defense.
Hagel, a Republican who represented Nebraska for two terms and retired after 2008, would be the first enlisted soldier and first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon. He was a U.S. Army infantry sergeant who served in 1967 and 1968, receiving two Purple Hearts. He was nominated for the defense post by President Barack Obama on Monday.
Hagel’s record in the Senate has drawn sharp attacks from some quarters.
The former senator has been criticized as hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. Opponents also have highlighted his 1998 comments about an ambassador nominee whom he called “openly, aggressively gay” – a comment for which he recently apologized, The Associated Press reported.
“In Chuck Hagel, the president has nominated a decorated Vietnam veteran with bipartisan credentials and a demonstrated understanding for the nuances of foreign policy and national security,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
“This nomination is important for our labs and bases in New Mexico, and I’ll be paying close attention to his hearing. … I look forward to weighing Sen. Hagel’s qualifications as the process moves forward,” Udall said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., commended Hagel’s military career as “an impressive record of service to our nation” but did not say whether he planned to back Hagel as defense secretary.
“Consideration of Chuck Hagel’s nomination is of critical importance to New Mexico’s defense installations,” Heinrich said. “… I look forward to being engaged in the confirmation process and learning more about his qualifications and vision for this important post.”
One of Hagel’s toughest critics, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., called his former colleague’s foreign policy views “outside the mainstream” and told the AP that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”
Sam Sokolove, executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, declined to comment on Hagel’s record, saying the national Jewish philanthropy group is not taking a public position on the nomination.
At the national level, other Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have been more vocal in opposition to Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Susan Seligman, coordinator of the New Mexico office of the Anti-Defamation League, did not return calls for comment.
Response from some Democrats in Congress on Hagel’s nomination has been tepid, according to the AP.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said Hagel had earned the right to a full and fair confirmation hearing, but Schumer reserved judgment on whether he would back him. And Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said he and other lawmakers “have questions that have to be answered,” specifically on Hagel’s views on Iran and Israel.
Although U.S. House members will not vote on the Hagel nomination, the Journal sought their comments on his qualifications for the defense post.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., voiced concern about Hagel’s vote against confirming the U.S. ambassador nominee he called “aggressively gay,” but said she supports Obama’s nomination.
“While I’m concerned and disagree with some of Sen. Hagel’s past statements on equal rights, his record of defending this country is impeccable,” Lujan Grisham said. “Few would disagree on his credentials to lead the Defense Department and help navigate the challenges facing our military.”
A spokesman for Rep. Steve Pearce, who was traveling Monday and unavailable for comment, said the southern New Mexico Republican would closely review the nomination and be prepared to advocate for Department of Defense workers in New Mexico.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said: “I will watch the process closely and look forward to hearing where Sen. Hagel stands on a number of issues important to New Mexico and our nation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal