On the same day that U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey joined 14 of his Republican colleagues in calling on President Barack Obama to withdraw the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, the lawmaker was in Center City to meet with two dozen Jewish leaders.
The meeting was off the record, but the freshman senator agreed to sit for an interview with the Jewish Exponent immediately after.
Hagel’s nomination has been controversial on several levels, including a number of past statements he made about Israel. In 2006, he decried the influence of the “Jewish lobby” — and he has indicated a soft approach to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.
“This is not something that I do lightly,” Toomey said of the letter. He said he believes presidents should be able to choose their Cabinet members. But he said that the position of defense secretary is so important that the nominee must have the full confidence of Congress.
“I think Sen. Hagel has articulated views that are well outside the mainstream on security in the Middle East, the terrorist threat that we face and our relationship with Israel,” Toomey said during the Feb. 21 interview at the Duane Morris law firm, where Republican donor Steven Friedman is a partner.
On Feb. 13, Pennsylvania's senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey, released a statement saying he supported Hagel’s nomination. So far, no Democrats have broken ranks.
“There have been some concerns about Sen. Hagel’s record on Israel and Iran,” Casey said in the release. “I received assurances from the senator on these critical national security issues. In my meeting with him, Sen. Hagel was very forthcoming and clearly stated that he supports strong sanctions on Iran and that no option should be taken off the table with respect to addressing its nuclear weapons program.”
Toomey said that stopping the nomination was still a possibility and that as many as 41 senators may oppose the nomination. Typically, a Cabinet nominee needs a simple majority, but several GOP lawmakers have discussed requiring a 60-vote cloture.
“I am not sure there are more than 41 who will use our power to establish a 60-vote threshold for his confirmation,” he said.
Regarding his party’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, Toomey said he doesn't think the GOP is in need of a full-blown makeover.
“In my view, we don’t need to change who we are and what we are about,” he said, citing limited government and free enterprise as core principles. What he thinks the Republicans need to do is “explain to ordinary Americans how our policies will result in more opportunities and a better standard of living for them.”
Regarding the gun control debate that has come about in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Toomey said that his opposition to most new gun control measures has not softened.
“The horrific massacre really underscored that the real problem is a mental health problem,” he said. “We don’t have a good way of identifying these people in advance.”