WASHINGTON (AP) — Chuck Hagel has emerged from a grueling confirmation hearing with solid Democratic support for his nomination to be President Barack Obama's next defense secretary and relentless opposition from Republican senators who fiercely challenged their former colleague on Iran, Israel and other issues.
Hagel appears to have enough senators' votes as he looks to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Democrats hold a 14-12 advantage on the Senate Armed Services Committee that questioned Hagel on Thursday, and Chairman Carl Levin said the panel could vote as early as next Thursday. Democrats control the Senate.
Levin expressed optimism about Hagel's prospects. "But I think there are a whole lot of folks who basically decided before the hearing that they were going to vote against him," Levin said.
Unclear is whether Republicans will take the rare move of trying to block the nomination of a Cabinet choice, especially when they have argued that presidents should have their nominees. Hagel would be the only Republican in Obama's Cabinet if confirmed.
Some of them are angry, however, at their fellow Republican and former Senate colleague for departing from their points of view on issues ranging from Israel and Iran to his support for a group that advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. Refusing to show any frustration or anger, Hagel defended his record Thursday.
Hagel described his views as mainstream and closely aligned with those of Obama. But several Republican members of the committee sought to portray him as radical and unsteady.
Hagel said he believes America "must engage — not retreat — in the world" and insisted that his record is consistent on that point.
He pointed to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as an example of an urgent national security threat that should be addressed first by attempting to establish dialogue with Iranian rulers, although he said he would not rule out using military force.
He pushed back on the notion that he favors a policy of appeasement.
"Engagement is not appeasement," Hagel said. "Engagement is not surrender."
The nominee's fiercest exchange came with Sen. John McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran and onetime close friend. Politics and Hagel's evolving opposition to the Iraq war caused a split between the two men that was on full display.
McCain 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.
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," he said.
Responding to criticism from outside Republican-leaning groups, Hagel repeated his regrets about using the term "Jewish lobby" to refer to pro-Israel groups. He said he should have used another term and should not have said those groups have intimidated members of the Senate into favoring actions contrary to U.S. interests.
"I'm sorry and I regret it," Hagel said. "On the use of 'intimidation,' I should have used 'influence,' I think would have been more appropriate."
At one point, Hagel mistakenly said the Obama policy toward Iran is "containment," even though the former senator has said all options, including military force, should be on the table. He was handed a note and corrected himself.
Hagel, 66, would be first Vietnam veteran to be defense secretary and the first enlisted man to take the post.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed.