By Jeremy Herb - 01/07/13 10:22 PM EST
President Obama on Monday nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be the nation’s next Defense secretary despite warnings of a tough confirmation fight from some Senate Republicans.
“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve,” Obama said from the White House. “He is an American patriot.”
Obama noted that, if confirmed, Hagel would become the first person of enlisted rank to serve as Defense secretary, as well as the first Vietnam veteran.
“As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength,” Obama said. “They see one of our own.”
By picking Hagel as his Defense secretary, Obama would have his second Republican Defense chief and would add a level of bipartisanship to his Cabinet. Hagel, Brennan and Obama’s pick for secretary of State, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), would make up the core of Obama’s second-term national security team.
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Hagel’s possible nomination has been rumored for weeks, and has sparked criticism from Republicans over past statements the ex-senator has made on Israel and Iran. A handful have already said they will oppose his confirmation, including Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — who doesn't get a vote on the Hagel nomination – issued a statement after he was nominated Monday calling him "the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time."
He also criticized Hagel for having "incendiary" views on Israel.
Pro-Israel groups are vowing to continue a lobbying campaign that began when Hagel was first named as the favorite to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
In his own brief comments, Hagel said he was “grateful" for the opportunity to serve the troops and to help “strengthen our country and our country’s alliances, and advance global freedom, decency and humanity."
In a nod toward the Republican opposition gathering around Hagel, Obama said that he “represents the bipartisan tradition we need more of in Washington.” Obama said that he admired Hagel’s willingness to speak his mind even when it wasn’t popular or defied conventional wisdom.
Brennan's nomination is also triggering a fight with Republicans. Cornyn said he would seek to block Brennan's confirmation until the completion of investigations into the leaking of classified information to the press.
Hagel has a strong background to turn to in his confirmation fight, as a Vietnam veteran who received two Purple Hearts. He was elected to the Senate in 1996 and served until 2009. He is currently a professor at Georgetown University, chairman of the Atlantic Council and co-chairman of the president’s intelligence advisory board.
As a senator, Hagel initially supported the Iraq invasion but became one of the leading GOP critics of the war and the George W. Bush administration, and he opposed the surge in 2007.
Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, noted that Hagel knows “war is not an abstraction.”
“He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary,” the president said. “ ‘My frame of reference,’ he said, ‘is geared toward the guy at the bottom whose doing the fighting,’ ” Obama said of Hagel.
Obama and Hagel met and spoke a number of times throughout this process, say sources familiar with their discussions.
“They share a lot of the same views about exhausting diplomatic options before using force,” a senior administration official said. “They've traveled together to war zones and they've had a lot of time to talk about the wars. They've gotten to know each other well — they're friends. The president has sought his counsel on a number of occasions.
“They're close enough that he ultimately supported his candidacy in 2008,” the official said.
Hagel, who was long a friend of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), did not endorse McCain for president in 2008 as the two diverged on foreign policy issues, including the Iraq surge supported by McCain.
McCain has expressed some reservations about Hagel but has not said whether he would oppose his confirmation.
The most vocal opposition to Hagel has come from pro-Israel groups. The Emergency Committee on Israel, which includes Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol on its board, put out a TV ad attacking Hagel’s credentials.
Critics point to Hagel’s 2006 comment that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates people on Capitol Hill. They also say that he is too willing to engage in negotiations with Hamas and that he has opposed sanctions against Iran.
In an interview on CNN Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the pick an “in-your-face nomination” from Obama.
“Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy,” said Graham, who has said he will wait until confirmation hearings to make up his mind on his vote.
The administration also will need to win over support from pro-Israel Democrats like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has so far not commented on Hagel.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said on Current TV Monday that Hagel was “controversial” and that he has questions that must be answered before supporting Hagel’s confirmation.
Hagel is also taking fire from the left for comments he made about former U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel, whom Hagel called “openly aggressively gay” when Hormel was nominated in 1998.
Hagel apologized for his comments last month, but the Log Cabin Republicans have taken out newspaper ads opposing him.
Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a leading voice for gay rights, issued a statement last week saying he was “strongly opposed” to Hagel for his comments, but he walked that back on Monday by saying he hopes Hagel is confirmed. Frank has lobbied to be temporarily appointed to Kerry’s Senate seat, which could potentially give him a vote on Hagel.
A group of Senate Democrats came out in support of Hagel Monday, including Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who is also a veteran. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, defended Hagel on Sunday, and Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have also shown their support.
The Obama administration official said the White House is aware that some Democrats like Schumer have said they're not particularly keen on the idea of Hagel. But they will be having discussions going forward with those opposed to iron out any issues such as Israel.
“That will be part of this process,” the official said. “He's a strong supporter of Israel.”
Brennan had been on Obama's short list for CIA chief back in 2008, to replace then-agency director and George W. Bush appointee Gen. Michael Hayden.
He reportedly turned down the administration's offer, fearing his role in the agency's use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terror detainees would be an insurmountable hurdle during the Senate confirmation process.
Panetta ended up replacing Hayden at Langley, with Brennan becoming the White House’s Deputy national security adviser and the administration’s top counterterrorism official.
Under his watch, Brennan helped shape the White House's aggressive counterterrorism strategy, focused on the increased use of armed drone strikes against suspected terror targets across the globe. He also played a key planning role in the U.S. special operations raid in March of 2011 that ended with the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Brennan was selected for the post over current acting CIA Director Michael Morrell.
—Amie Parnes and Carlo Muñoz contributed.
This story was posted at 1:14 p.m. and last updated at 5:22 p.m.