He clashed with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former friend and Vietnam veteran, when he refused to give him a direct answer on whether the Iraq war surge succeeded. He apologized for using the term "Jewish lobby" in a rambling answer to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and stumbled in his answers on Iran.
Hagel's answers prompted at least one prominent conservative, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), to announce he would oppose Hagel's nomination.
"I've stated long ago I've been deeply disturbed by his previous comments and positions in regards to sanctions on Iran and in regards to direct negotiations with North Korea," Rubio told Fox News during Hagel's testimony. Obviously, statements he's made about Israel…I just don't believe I will be able to support his nomination especially after his testimony in the last hour here, he's really not said anything that addresses those concerns to my satisfaction."
McCain, a defense hawk and outspoken supporter of the Iraq war, grew irate when Hagel wouldn't say whether he believed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq helped stabilize that country.
McCain demanded that Hagel answer the question, which the nominee refused to do.
"Are you going to answer the question?" McCain said, cutting off Hagel. "Let the record show that you refused to answer the question."
"I'm not going to give you a yes or no," said Hagel. "I'll defer that judgement to history."
"History has already made a judgement on the surge, and you're on the wrong side of it," McCain said later, warning he might oppose Hagel because of his refusal to give him a direct response.
Asked about his previous comments criticizing the surge, including calling the troop increase in Iraq the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam, Hagel said: "I stand by them because I made them."
Leaving the committee hearing minutes after their exchange, McCain responded to a POLITICO question about the tense exchange.
"The fact that he wouldn't answer a straight-forward question was disappointing," said McCain, saying that a function of the committee was to receive straight answers. "We expect witnesses to answer the questions, and he refused to do so."
McCain reiterated that he hadn't made up his mind on whether to support Hagel's confirmation, but said that Hagel's refusal to answer his question was "certainly a factor."
Hagel has also drawn rebukes from from senators in both parties with his use of the phrase the "Jewish lobby" that has the ability to "intimidate" members of Congress, in reference to the pro-Israel community.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) engaged in a fast, trial-style questioning of Hagel, and aggressively pressed Hagel on his previous remark that the "Jewish lobby" has intimidated some politicians to take unwise stances.
"Name one person in your opinion who is intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the United States Senate?" said Graham, who has served as a judge advocate in the Air Force.
"I didn't have in mind a specific person," said Hagel. "I cannot give you an example" on what the Senate has done under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.