Hagel Gets a Boost as McCain Totters

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Yesterday’s Senate circus on the war had one useful purpose. It became a presidential beauty pageant for candidates to strut their stuff on TV. As always, Hillary got headlines, but the most impressive presidential hopeful on the scene was Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel. With John McCain looking sick and tired (he had melanoma removed from the left side of his face in 2000) and wobbling all over the place on the issues, Hagel is emerging as the most attractive Republican presidential possibility, and, as the conservatives like to say, the most “principled.” Hagel is important in all of this because he was among the very first, if not the first, member of Congress to get behind George Bush’s presidential push before the 2000 election. Things have changed. Last week Hagel said Bush’s new plan is “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” Hagel is a decorated Vietnam vet. He’s now calling the war a “bloodbath.”

The proposed Senate resolutions on the war are not binding in any way. “There is very little chance in the short run that we are going to pass any legislation,” Hillary told reporters yesterday as she announced her own initiative. How so, she was asked. “I can count,” she replied. Or to put it another way, Congressman John McHugh, a New York Republican who traveled with Clinton to Iraq said, “Congress right now has no effective role in this process.”

The politics over the war is likely to be fought out—not on the Senate floor—but in John Murtha’s appropriations subcommittee which oversees defense funding. Money bills must come from the House, not the Senate. Murtha, you will remember, was given up for dead when he was beaten by Steny Hoyer to be House majority leader, and sent back to his old job. Recently, Murtha has talked about cutting off war money. He’s the one person who actually has the power to make life plenty tough for Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the White House.

It may appear that the Congress is fast congealing around some sort of opposition to Bush with Republicans like Olympia Snowe jumping on board. Not quite. The administration forces are hoping to spring a trap. If anyone sets an actual withdrawal date, they’ll be up and screaming the Dems are cut and run, leaving our troops in the lurch. For now, they wait to see whether Reid and/or Pelosi spring for the bait.

Update: For Jonathan Alter on Chuck Hagel’s presidential chances, see here.

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