Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's Secretary of Defense confirmation hearing Thursday proved a ripe opportunity for new Republican senators to build their conservative bona fides and attempt to out-do each other for the title of most anti-Iran, pro-Israel politician in Washington.
Grilling Hagel alongside their more senior GOP colleagues, many of whom had served with Hagel, Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ted Cruz of Texas, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Mike Lee of Utah peppered an often flustered or inarticulate Hagel on many of his past statements and votes.
"I understand that you have made a statement indicating that there is no justification for Palestinian suicide bombers, but there is also no justification for Israel to 'keep Palestinians caged up like animals,'" said Lee, during the nearly eight hours of questioning Hagel faced. "Did you say that and if so do you stand by that statement today?"
Responding similarly throughout the day to such questions, Hagel, a Republican, admitted to making the statement but claimed to not remember the context in which he said it.
"If I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I've said, I would like to go back and change the words and the meaning," he said. "I've said many, many things over many years. It was a larger context of the frustration and what's happening, which is not in Israel's interest to find ways that we can help bring peace and security to Israel. If I had a change to go back and edit it I would. I regret that I used those words."
But Hagel's contrition wore on many Republicans, particularly those with whom he did not serve, because it came up time and time again as he was asked about controversial statements from his part.
Cruz, a Tea Party-backed Texan, perhaps made the most of his time with Hagel by repeatedly interrupting, chastising, and pressing Hagel for succinct answers. At one point, he even played a television clip of Hagel being interviewed by Al-Jazeera in 2009.
"You explicitly agreed with the characterization of the United States as the world's bully," Cruz said. "The United States has spilled more blood, more treasure, standing for freedom, liberating people across the world, and to go on Al-Jazeera, a foreign network broadcasting propaganda to nations that are hostile to us, and to explicitly agreed to the characterization of the United States as the world's bully, I would suggest is not the conduct one would expect of the Secretary of Defense."
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the committee chairman, noted the unusual nature of Cruz's approach.
"I told Senator Cruz that I preferred we have a transcript and that you be asked questions from a transcript, but that I didn't want to stop him from offering the tape of it and he went ahead and did it," Levin said to Hagel.
President Barack Obama's top choice for leading the defense department also faced scrutiny from GOP defense and foreign policy leaders and former colleagues Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham. But there was no doubt which senators felt they had the most to prove, as it was the newer members who provided the most stinging exchanges.
New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who counts McCain and Graham among her Senate mentors, bristled when Hagel tried to brush off a question she had about a past statement he had made about the effectiveness of containment strategy with Iran.
"It doesn't make any difference what I think," he said.
Ayotte responded, "Senator, I want to be clear, it does matter what you think and obviously your understanding and thought process on these issues is very important to us."
Though pundits categorized Hagel's performance as underwhelming and weak, it's not likely enough to throw his confirmation off track on its own. Hagel's fate lies in whether any senator chooses to filibuster his confirmation, forcing him to tally 60 votes in order to overcome the opposition, rather than just a simple majority, which Democrats have.