BOSTON — Maine Sen. Angus King said Thursday that he sees no strong reason to oppose President Barack Obama’s pick for secretary of defense.
The newly elected senator, an independent, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he won’t make a final decision on former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination until confirmation hearings are finished. King serves as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on Jan. 31.
“I start with a presumption that the president should be able to appoint his own people to his cabinet. So unless there’s some strong disqualifying element or quality to the nominee, I start with that positive presumption,” King said.
Asked whether he saw a strong disqualifying element or quality with Hagel, King said, “No.”
“But I want to see what the testimony is at the hearing and have a chance to talk to him directly,” he added.
King is scheduled to meet privately with Hagel next week.
A handful of Republicans have expressed their opposition to Hagel, a Republican who served two terms as senator from Nebraska. His nomination gained some Democratic momentum this week with the backing of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer, but the opposition of the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, was a blow.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican often involved in defense and intelligence issues, met with Hagel in Washington on Tuesday. Collins served on the Armed Services Committee until this term.
Afterward, Collins said the conversation was “helpful in addressing some of my concerns about his past statements, positions and votes” but added she was reserving judgment on Hagel until after his nomination hearings.
Collins said she and Hagel discussed a long list of topics during their 90-minute meeting, including U.S. shipbuilding, sexual assault in the military, the high rate of suicides in the military and the impacts of potential across-the-board defense spending cuts known as sequestration.
“We had an extensive discussion about Iran, Israel’s security, and terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” Collins said in a statement. “I also asked him about his statements and votes opposing unilateral sanctions against Iran. We do not share the same views on many of these matters or the critical role Congress must play regarding these issues; however, we did have an open and frank discussion, and I have requested additional information which he has agreed to supply.”
Hagel has also drawn fire for comments he made about an openly gay nominee for an ambassador post. Collins, who helped repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, said after Tuesday’s meeting that she was satisfied Hagel would implement the new law protecting the rights of gay and lesbian service personnel.
If confirmed, Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran and enlisted man to serve as the secretary of defense, which King called “a big plus.”
“The idea that he’s been an enlisted man, a decorated Vietnam veteran, he knows the reality of the life of the ordinary soldier is a big plus,” King said. “I’ve heard people dismiss that, say, ‘Oh that’s no big deal.’ I think it is. I think it’s a significant piece of what he brings to this position.”
— MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller contributed to this report.