President Obama plans to nominate former senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam War veteran, to be secretary of defense, according to a person close to the process and a senior administration official.
The White House informed the Hagel camp over the weekend that Obama intends to announce the nomination Monday. The administration said early Monday that the president also would nominate counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hagel’s successful nomination would add a well-known Republican to the president’s second-term Cabinet at a time when he is looking to better bridge the partisan divide, particularly after a bitter election campaign.
But the expected nomination has drawn sharp criticism in recent weeks, particularly from Republicans, who have questioned Hagel’s commitment to Israel’s security.
The choice sets up a confirmation fight of the sort that Obama appeared unwilling to have over Susan E. Rice, his preferred pick for secretary of state. Rice pulled out of consideration for that job last month after facing sharp Republican criticism about her characterization of the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Hagel’s selection an “in-your-face nomination.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Hagel’s record would be given a fair shake in the Senate if he is nominated. McConnell stopped short of saying whether he would support his former colleague.
“He’s certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” He added: “The question we’ll be answering, if he’s the nominee, is: Do his views make sense for that particular job? I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee. And he will be.”
The Hagel nomination will begin what White House officials have said will probably be a busy week of announcements about who will fill Obama’s second-term Cabinet and senior staff positions.
The president returned Sunday from a curtailed holiday in Hawaii and will begin making final personnel decisions that were delayed by the year-end negotiations with Congress over taxes and spending cuts.
Foreign policy tussle
Despite the opposition to a Hagel nomination that has arisen on Capitol Hill, a senior administration official said Sunday that the White House expects him to receive the support of Democrats, as well as many Republicans who served with him.
“Having a name floated and having one officially put forward are two different things,” the official said.
Hagel, who was twice awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Vietnam, served in the Senate for two terms, ending in 2009.
He was an outspoken and often independent voice as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, breaking with many in his party to sharply criticize the management of the Iraq war after he initially supported the U.S.-led invasion.
“A lot of Republican opposition is rooted in the fact that he left his party on Iraq,” the senior administration official said. “And we think it will be very hard for Republicans to stand up and be able to say that they oppose someone who was against a war that most Americans think was a horrible idea.”
Hagel also has been a strong advocate for veterans, an issue that Obama has spoken about frequently as tens of thousands of U.S. troops return from battlefields after more than a decade of war. The administration official said Hagel, as a result, is “uniquely qualified” to help wind down the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and make budget decisions to support the returning troops.
Some of the recent criticism directed at Hagel has focused on his mixed record over the imposition of sanctions on Iran. As a senator, Hagel opposed several bills to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran. But he also supported measures to put in place sanctions as part of multinational efforts, and he endorsed labeling Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.
Hagel’s record has raised concern among some of Israel’s supporters in the United States, who fear that he may not be sufficiently committed to that country’s security.
But his defenders point to his record as a senior senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he voted for nearly $40 billion in military aid to Israel over his tenure.
Obama, who worked with Hagel on nuclear nonproliferation issues and other foreign policy matters in the Senate, has vowed to prevent Iran from using its uranium-enrichment program to develop a nuclear weapon.
Obama has worked to tighten both U.S. and international sanctions to pressure Iran into giving up the effort, moves that Hagel has supported in recent interviews. The Iranian government has said that it is pursuing nuclear power, not weapons.