Yahoo News exclusive: McConnell holds judgment on Hagel, calls him a ‘smart, capable guy’

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Will opposition from his fellow Republicans doom Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary? Maybe not, if you listen closely to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Kentucky lawmaker told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview that Hagel had strong opinions and quite a bit to explain. But McConnell called the former Nebraska senator a "smart, capable guy" who deserved a full hearing before the Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

"He’s had a lot of opinions. He was particularly opposed to much of what the Bush administration was doing in foreign policy. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a capable senator or a forceful advocate," McConnell told Yahoo News Chief Washington Correspondent Olivier Knox. Hagel, who served two terms in the Senate from 1997 to 2009, won two purple hearts in Vietnam, where he served as an enlisted Army infantry officer.

Hagel's years in the Senate haven't endeared him to many Republican lawmakers still smarting over his outspoken criticism of the Iraq war even after he voted to authorize the U.S. invasion. Hagel's position on the war sealed his reputation as a party outsider and led him to lend tacit support to President Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Hagel has been criticized for opposing unilateral U.S. sanctions against Tehran—a position he has since changed. He has also raised questions about his support for Israel and at one point criticized the "Jewish lobby" for holding such sway in Washington.

Some Republican senators have suggested they will try to block Hagel's confirmation, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

McConnell told Yahoo News that he and other GOP senators are reserving judgment on whether to support Hagel to allow the confirmation hearings to play out.

"He has taken some rather controversial positions over the years, he’s going to have an opportunity to explain those views," McConnell said.

Knox read from an interview McConnell gave in 2007 where he called Hagel an "indispensable" Republican whose views on Iraq had largely proven correct.

"He's certainly been an outspoken advocate for his point of view and that’s exactly what I was saying," McConnell said. "That’s a little different from saying it was a point of view I shared or that other people shared."

Despite Democratic control of the Senate, Hagel needs at least some support from Republicans to ward off a potential filibuster.

Olivier Knox's complete interview with Sen. McConnell will be released Friday morning, Feb. 1 on Yahoo News.

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