CAPITOL HILL: In one of the least salubrious displays of partisan rancor in a long time on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the defense policy panel sent Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the Senate floor on a straight party-line vote, 14-11.

In a hearing that, at times, had faint echoes of the infamous anti-Communist witch hunt hearings dominated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Democrats praised Hagel for his service in Vietnam while Republicans berated him as left of center, a possible friend of Iran, a possible enemy of Israel, and someone who just wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.

The most gripping moments of the hearing came as Sen. Ted Cruz, a new Republican member of the committee, used the time-honored tactic of asking what the committee didn’t know and why it didn’t know it. Perhaps Hagel had given speeches that the committee didn’t know about. What “if he received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups,” Cruz wondered. Taking his comments together, Cruz came perilously close to insinuating that Hagel had taken money from Iranian and anti-Israeli groups.

Cruz clearly possesses very strong views on Hagel for a very junior member. If Hagel is approved by the full Senate, Cruz said military conflict would be “substantially more likely” in the next four years because he would embolden America’s enemies.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, took Cruz head on, telling him that Hagel had told the committee, as required, that he had not received funding from foreigners. He told Cruz the committee “would not accept your suggestion or innuendo that there is some kind of conflict of interest here…” If the new member of the committee did come up with evidence, Levin told him it could be presented to the committee.

All this was too much for some observers, and even for some senators. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Cruz that he “had gone over the line” and accused Cruz of having “impugned the patriotism of the nominee.

Nelson was joined by Republican maverick John McCain, who had engaged in some fierce exchanges with Hagel at his nomination hearing two weeks ago. McCain said Hagel “is an honorable man. He has served his country, and no one on this committee in any context should impugn his character or his integrity.”

But Sen. James Inhofe, who replaced McCain as the committee’s ranking Republican, claimed Hagel had effectively been “endorsed” by Iran. And so it went. The vote was predictable.

Today’s hearing seems to indicate a new GOP tactic on the SASC since Obama’s reelection. The committee worked well even during the days over the last two years when the GOP opposed virtually everything the president said or tried to do. Now the gloves seem to have come off in the one committee most of us have counted on for comity and a common commitment to our nation’s interests. Let’s hope this bitter brew is limited to Hagel.

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