WASHINGTON ― The Senate Armed Services Committee will vote Wednesday on whether to advance President Joe Biden’s beleaguered nominee for Pentagon policy chief, Colin Kahl, after a rocky few days for the nomination.
Kahl, in line for the Pentagon’s No. 3 civilian job, seemed to be in greater jeopardy until two Democrats on the panel backed off their blanket opposition to Biden nominee, per multiple reports. Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, the first Thai-American elected to Congress, and Maizie Hirono, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, had their concerns met by a White House promise to add a senior-level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison.
“Based on the private conversation we had, I will continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration,” Hirono tweeted late Tuesday night.
Democratic opposition, in the evenly divided Senate, would endanger confirmation for Kahl, a former national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden. Already his nomination for undersecretary of defense for policy faced stiffening opposition from Republicans over his Mideast policy positions and history of tweets attacking Republican lawmakers.
Wednesday’s vote, after weeks of delays from SASC Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., should force a decision from the panel’s swing vote, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. After his opposition to Biden’s nominee for budget director over her harsh tweets sank that nomination, Manchin has to decide whether he would be willing to buck a president from his own party once again.
In addition, SASC’s ranking member, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., made their opposition official Tuesday after Duckworth’s remarks. Inhofe, in a statement, urged Biden to send nominees who can garner bipartisan support. (Inhofe told reporters at the Capitol he believes Kahl won’t get a single Republican vote in committee.)
“This is the number-three position at the Pentagon — and the policy role is currently even more important because the United States is facing more threats than ever before,” Inhofe said. “This position demands bipartisanship, even temperament and good policy judgment — characteristics I don’t believe Dr. Kahl has demonstrated.”
Though Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, cast the deciding 50th vote in favor of Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary earlier this month, she joined several Republicans in public opposition to Kahl last week. In a statement to Politico, she said: “He warned of calamity following the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, when instead we saw historically close Arab-Israeli ties in 2020.”
Meanwhile, some pro-Israel voices are arguing publicly that Kahl, a supporter of President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, would not be a friend to Israel in his new role. Israel opposed the politically polarizing Iran nuclear deal, Trump withdrew from it, and Biden wants to return to deal that’s tougher on Iran.
The Hill on Tuesday ran an op-ed from the pro-Israel Middle East Forum arguing Kahl’s confirmation would, “end the nature of bipartisan support for Israel, allow for the Iranians to be closer to a nuclear bomb, and consign the Middle East to further blood-letting and needless wars.” Christians United for Israel last week ran full-page ads in several West Virginia newspapers urging voters to sway Manchin against Kahl.
On the flip side, dozens of U.S. foreign policy veterans and three top Israeli officials have voiced support for Kahl. A letter from 50 former U.S. officials to the Senate Armed Services Committee noted Kahl’s support for funding Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system and his dedication to preserving Israel’s military edge.
Kahl worked under Obama to guard Israel’s edge while President Donald Trump was less cautious with arms sales, Amos Gilead, an ex-Israeli defense official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Biden, he noted, paused Trump’s deal to sell F-35 fighters to the Abu Dhabi in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel.
“Obama did not allow F-35s and armed UAVs to Arab countries, in spite of the vested interest of United States to export weapons,” Gilead told JTA. “It’s a matter of huge money that goes to manufacturers and workers in the states. And Trump, considered our best friend, took the immediate decision to sell F-35s against any professional advice. Now Biden has frozen those sales.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.