By Jeremy Herb - 12/09/12 11:00 PM EST
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is generating new buzz as a potential member of President Obama's second-term Cabinet.
If chosen, the former Nebraska senator would be Obama’s second Republican defense secretary.
With the president looking to remake his national security team, Hagel appears to be among the Republicans most likely to join it. He has an independent streak and a bipartisan reputation, and he's currently co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.
But Hagel could present some unusual obstacles for an across-the-aisle Cabinet selection — because Hagel is anything but a typical Republican when it comes to foreign policy.
Before he left the Senate in 2009, Hagel was a chief Republican critic of the George W. Bush administration on the Iraq War. He opposed the surge in 2007, and traveled with then candidate-Obama on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon said that Hagel was experienced, capable and independent-minded, all good qualities. But he said he was wary that bringing a Republican like Hagel into the Cabinet would help with the politics of national security.
Hagel’s opposition to the Iraq surge “will cast his judgment into some doubt among some Republicans in particular, further reducing the odds that his appointment would do anything to change the tone in Washington or help Obama build a bridge to the GOP, if that was part of the thinking in considering Hagel,” O’Hanlon said.
Hagel, who is currently chairman of the Atlantic Council, is one of four people considered to be on the short list to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The others are Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, former Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is more interested in the Secretary of State post.
The decision for who should succeed Panetta has not generated nearly as much interest in recent weeks as the secretary of state selection, where Republicans have loudly criticized U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice as a possible nominee.
Compared to Rice, Hagel’s confirmation might appear to be smooth sailing. But the chief Rice critic, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who has said he’d do everything in his power to block Rice — could also play a key role in Hagel’s confirmation.
Hagel’s break with Republicans on Iraq and other foreign policy issues, such as whether to engage directly with Iranian leaders, has put him at odds with McCain. The Arizona senator was a staunch supporter of the Iraq surge and has been Obama’s chief foreign policy critic.
McCain was long a friend of Hagel when they both served in the Senate, but that friendship was tested during McCain’s 2008 presidential run.
Hagel declined to endorse McCain’s presidential bid and criticized his vice presidential pick of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
In a 2008 New Yorker profile of Hagel ahead of the election, Hagel said he wouldn’t serve in McCain’s Cabinet, highlighting how much the two had diverged on foreign policy issues.
“I’m not going to change mine to adjust to his,” Hagel said. “And I serve at the pleasure of the President. So it wouldn’t work.”
Asked by The Hill this week about the potential that Hagel could become defense secretary, McCain declined to tip his hand.
“Chuck and I have been friends for a long time, but I haven’t really thought about it,” McCain said. “I probably won’t until the nominations.”
Hagel’s potential nomination would come as Republicans like McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are making renewed calls for the Obama administration to take a more active role in the Syrian conflict. The GOP lawmakers have also warned the White House not to remove troops too quickly from Afghanistan as the war winds down.
Hagel could run into more problems resulting from his endorsement in the Nebraska Senate race of his former Democratic Senate colleague Bob Kerrey over Republican Deb Fischer.
Fischer, who won the Senate seat last month, would get a vote for Hagel’s confirmation next year.
In making his endorsement, Hagel was asked if he was angling for a Cabinet position. “I'd be out in Virginia or Ohio campaigning for the president, not Bob Kerrey," he responded, according to the Associated Press.
The buzz surrounding Hagel prompted the Republican Jewish Coalition to issue a pre-emptive statement last week raising concerns about Hagel’s views toward Israel.
The GOP group said his pick “could be construed as a gesture of indifference — if not outright contempt — toward Jewish Americans and every American who supports a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.”
The group cited Hagel not signing letters to urge President Bush not to meet with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat or to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Republicans senators had some praise for Hagel when asked about him as a potential defense secretary. They also said that his endorsement would have little impact on their opposition to Rice if the two were chosen at the same time.
“Chuck’s a good friend. I would think he’d be very good,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who will likely succeed McCain next year as top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“If I get any stronger than that, [Obama] won’t nominate him,” Inhofe told The Hill.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) noted Hagel’s military experience and independence, but didn’t give an outright endorsement.
“We’ll have to see what his views are on the issues,” Sessions said.
For Democrats, there are some concerns at the optics of Obama selecting another Republican as defense secretary, after he kept Robert Gates on as a holdover from the Bush administration. But the top Senate Democrat on defense issues signaled no opposition.
“He's obviously well qualified if the president goes in that direction," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told the Omaha World-Herald.