WASHINGTON — Senators who nearly buried Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel found reasons to praise him on Wednesday.
Seven weeks after his bruising Senate confirmation fight, Hagel fielded questions on the defense budget, Afghanistan, Syria and North Korea in his first appearance before the Armed Services Committee since it narrowly approved his nomination in February on a bitter, party-line vote.
Among the questioners were Republicans who three months ago insisted that the former GOP senator was ill-prepared for the top Pentagon job and even some who insinuated that the decorated Vietnam War veteran was cozy with enemies such as Iran.
What a difference a job and several high-profile decisions make.
"My friend, Secretary — former Senator Hagel. We worked together for a long period of time. Had some difference of opinion. We'll always remain good friends," said Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee. Just a few months ago, Inhofe said reports that Iranian leaders had praised Hagel's nomination was an endorsement and "you can't get any cozier than that."
On Wednesday, Inhofe credited Hagel for the administration's decision to beef up its defenses against a possible North Korean missile attack on the U.S., saying he was pleased with the move to add 14 missile interceptors to the 26 in place at Fort Greely, Alaska.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who suggested Hagel was "clueless" on Iran, "out of the mainstream" and tried to scuttle the nomination, praised Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the responsible way the administration has handled a belligerent North Korea.
In his brief time on the job, Hagel has received high marks from congressional Democrats and Republicans for his swift action on two contentious issues — sexual assault in the military and a new military medal for drone and cyber warriors.
Lawmakers were furious when an Air Force officer overturned a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case. Within weeks, Hagel recommended that military commanders largely be stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members and asked his staff to draft legislation to change the military justice system.
"It is very unusual for a problem to be identified and highlighted and to have the military really come together in a consensus fashion," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters recently. "The Joint Chiefs and the secretary of Defense indicating that they are willing to make a major change in the criminal justice system that is part of the code of military justice is huge."
Hagel's decision came just days before his first appearance on Capitol Hill since his confirmation, and House members welcomed the development.
On Monday, Hagel reversed a decision by his predecessor, Leon Panetta, and canceled the creation of a new military medal for drone and cyber warriors. He ordered military leaders to develop a special pin or device that would be attached to already existing medals or ribbons.
That drew effusive praise from Republicans, Democrats and veterans who had argued that the medal should not be ranked higher than traditional combat medals such as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
"This is why I voted to confirm Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense — simply put, he does the right thing," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
For his part, Hagel was smoother at his third appearance on Capitol Hill in a week, a sharp contrast to his halting testimony at his confirmation hearing in January that was widely criticized. His responses Wednesday were crisper than his sometimes rambling answers at his confirmation.
This time he shared the witness table with Dempsey and Pentagon comptroller Bob Hale.
Once again, Hagel tangled with his former colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over the defense budget and congressional notification, but the exchange bore none of the hard edges of their angry dispute over the Iraq war earlier this year.
The hearing Wednesday even had some moments of levity. The well-attended session gave Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., the requisite number to approve military nominations and promotions at the start of the hearing. The panel acted by voice vote.
"Is the hearing over?" joked Hagel.
"It is — at least for the 549 nominees it's over," said Levin over the laughter.
"A damn efficient committee," Hagel quipped.