President Barack Obama has settled on Chuck Hagel, a Republican and former U.S. senator from Nebraska, to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with an announcement expected Monday, Democratic officials tell POLITICO.
The choice of Hagel, who opposed his party on the Iraq War as a senator, is likely to ignite a raucous confirmation battle because several Democratic interest groups and prominent Republicans have voiced strong opposition since Hagel’s vetting for the job was reported five weeks ago.
A Democratic aide described the White House’s logic for choosing Hagel, age 66: “Chuck Hagel is a decorated war hero who would be the first enlisted soldier and Vietnam veteran to go on to serve as secretary of defense. He had the courage to break with his party during the Iraq War, and would help bring the war in Afghanistan to an end while building the military we need for the future.
“He has been a champion for troops, veterans and military families through his service at the VA and USO, and his leadership on behalf of the post-9/11 GI Bill. The president knows him well, has traveled with him to Iraq and Afghanistan, trusts him and believes he represents the proud tradition of a strong, bipartisan foreign policy in the United States.”
Obama, who arrived back in D.C. Sunday morning, is expected to announce his nomination of Hagel on Monday, as his first public appearance after the continuation of his Hawaii vacation.
Within a few days, and perhaps at the same time as the Hagel announcement, the president is likely to name his successor for former CIA Director David Petraeus. The candidates are John Brennan, White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, or Mike Morrell, acting CIA director.
Neoconservative Republicans have rallied against Hagel. More damaging in the Democratic-controlled Senate, pro-Israel groups and gay-rights groups have marshaled opposition.
A Senate Democratic official said: “I don’t think Dems just fall in line. Ultimately, he may be confirmed. But at this stage, his fate is totally up in the air. He will really have to work hard to overcome some of his previous statements and positions.”
In 1998, Hagel disparaged James C. Hormel as “openly aggressively gay,” after President Bill Clinton named him ambassador to Luxembourg.
On Dec. 21, Hagel issued a strong apology for the quote, which had appeared in the Omaha World-Herald: “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”
Hagel’s past comments also have stirred anger among some in the Jewish community and other Israel backers.
Advocates for Israel have a variety of policy disagreements with Hagel, but one of their biggest concerns may be his frank and unflattering public assessments of their work and role in Washington.
“The political reality is … that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel told former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller in a 2006 interview. “I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel.”
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