Updated: At Hill hearing, Hagel 'troubles' Ayotte, but is supported by Shaheen
By JOHN DiSTASO Senior Political Reporter
New Hampshire's two U.S. Senators took predictably different approaches when questioning President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary at his confirmation hearing Thursday.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said she was troubled by what she viewed as "inconsistencies" in Republican former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's stated positions on Iran and on nuclear disarmament.
Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who has already announced her support for Hagel, framed her questions to give Hagel an opportunity to clearly state that he does not advocate unilateral nuclear disarmament for the United States, that he believes military action should be on the table in dealing with Iran and that he has always been a supporter of Israel.
Shaheen also exacted a promise from Hagel to support, and visit, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and to work to clean up maintenance backlogs and put into place a modernization plan for all U.S. shipyards.
Shaheen and Ayotte, who is reserving judgment on Hagel's nomination, are both on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which conducted the lengthy confirmation hearing.
Questioned by Ayotte, Hagel acknowledged that as a Republican U.S. senator in 2001, he was one of only two senators to vote against extending sanctions against Iran.
He also acknowledged that in 2008 he blocked unanimous consent for consideration of a sanctions bill brought to the floor by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Hagel said he was among a group of Republican senators who "did not want that bill to go forward" because, he said, the Bush administration did not support it.
Hagel said the Bush administration was in negotiations with the Russians at the time hoping to institute "multi-lateral" sanctions.
Ayotte noted that a later version of the bill passed the Senate 99-0 after Hagel left the Senate.
Ayotte then focused on Hagel's support for the Global Zero movement, which calls for sharp reductions in nuclear weapons, even possibly without corresponding cuts by other nations.
Hagel told her a Global Zero report, which described the possibility of eliminating land-based ICBMs, was simply an "illustration" of possible scenarios.
"Why would you put your name on a report that is inconsistent with what you've told us today, that you've never been against unilateral disarmament?" Ayotte asked. She said she found it "troubling and inconsistent."
Hagel said the report was simply laying out "illustrations" and "possibilities." He said his position has been consistently opposed to unilateral disarmament.
Hagel told Shaheen that even Ronald Reagan in 1986 stated that the "total elimination of all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth" was what Hagel described as "an inspirational goal."
"Someday, probably not in this lifetime, we should hope for a world that would be free of nuclear weapons," he told Shaheen.
Shaheen asked, "Do you agree, as long as nuclear weapons exist, that we have to maintain" a nuclear arsenal?
"Yes," said Hagel. "I have never had any other position.
"Our nuclear deterrent has been at the core of keeping world peace and avoiding World War III," he said.
Ayotte tried to draw out what she viewed as an inconsistency in Hagel's position on whether a military option should be "on the table" with respect to Iran.
She pointed out that in 2006, while in Pakistan, he said that a military option is "not a feasible or responsible option" for Iran, but that earlier in the hearing, he said he believed a military option should be on the table.
"It strikes me what you're saying now is inconsistent with that (2006) statement," Ayotte said.
Hagel said the 2006 statement "was made in the context of all options regarding Iran. Pakistan is where I was at the time and the larger context of the statement was nuclear power, and Pakistan is certainly part of that club.
"My point was that this would not be a preferable option," said Hagel. "If we could find a better way to deal with Iran, we're far better off."
"The military option should always be on the table," Hagel responded to a question by Shaheen. "It should always be the last option."
Ayotte also pressed Hagel on why he once called for direct talks between the U.S. and Iran asking if he believed the Iranian regime has shown "sane behavior."
"So far they have not," said Hagel, who went on to say, "It's always responsible to try to talk first" before going to war.
He noted that the U.S. has had direct talks with North Korea, whose regime he said has also not shown sane behavior.
On Israel, Hagel admitted he wished he could "edit" some of the statements he made in the past, but he told Shaheen, "My support of Israel's security has always been very clear. I strongly support Israel and I've never equivocated from that."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen questions Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel: