By Jeremy Herb and Amie Parnes - 01/08/13 10:00 AM EST
The White House is all but daring Republicans to oppose President Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to lead the Pentagon.
The administration believes Hagel’s standing as a Republican war hero — he was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam — means Republicans would be making a mistake in opposing his nomination.
Obama is in a strong position politically after his reelection and the fiscal-cliff fight, which divided Republicans and exposed unease in the House over Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) leadership.
White House aides see Obama as having leverage with congressional Republicans on a host of issues, including the debt ceiling, gun control and immigration, and increasingly are signaling they intend to take a tougher approach in dealing with House Republicans — including with the Hagel nomination.
When push comes to shove, aides believe, the GOP will back down before filibustering a former infantry squad leader who, if confirmed, would become the first enlisted man and Vietnam War veteran to head the Department of Defense.
“It's one thing to hold your fire or say something on a Sunday show — it's another to look him in the eye, this guy who is a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts,” said one senior administration official. “That would be a very difficult thing for Republicans to do.”
Republicans, however, say the Obama administration’s optimism might be suffering from a dose of overconfidence.
One Senate GOP aide said the conference was “very surprised” that Obama ultimately chose Hagel.
“It’s not looking good. I don’t see strong support for him from either side of the aisle,” the aide said. “This is not a bipartisan nomination. The only thing bipartisan about this nomination is the opposition to it.”
A handful of Republican senators on Monday said they would vote against Hagel in part because of statements on Israel, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) criticizing the former senator’s “incendiary views” and calling him the “wrong man for the job.”
Pro-Israel groups teed off on Hagel’s statements that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates people in Washington and hammered him for supporting diplomacy with Iran and Hamas.
Many other GOP lawmakers kept their cards close to the vest, saying they had serious concerns but electing to wait until his confirmation hearing to decide whether to oppose him.
Hagel served alongside 57 current senators before he retired in 2009, including 25 Republicans. But Hagel drew the ire of many in his party for his criticism of the Iraq war and the surge, as well as for endorsing Democrats in several recent Senate races.
Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Monday they will vote against Hagel. Almost a dozen more have expressed serious concerns, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who described Hagel's as an “in-your-face” nomination from Obama.
“He has long severed his ties with the Republican Party,” Graham said on CNN’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. “Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be secretary of Defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history.”
Administration officials say Obama has long admired Hagel, and respected his decision to break with his party on the war in Iraq. And the White House believes he has other fans — including some Democrats — in the Senate to push him over the top.
Among them: Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I), who sent out a press release hours before Obama made the announcement to praise his qualifications for the job.
“He is highly qualified and his record of service to this country as a decorated combat veteran, successful CEO, senator and statesman is extraordinary,” Reed said in the statement, adding that he was a man of “uncommon independence and integrity.”
But several Democratic senators who tend to be hawkish on Israel and Iran — led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and clustered in the Northeast — said they were withholding judgment until they hear more from Hagel.
“Chuck Hagel, as a former colleague and a patriot with a decorated service record, has earned the right to nothing less than a full and fair process in the Senate,” Schumer said in a statement Monday. “I look forward to fully studying his record and exploring his views."
Other Democrats expressing similar sentiments Monday included Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Hagel will also have to answer to liberal Democrats upset that he called a diplomatic nominee “openly, aggressively gay” in 1998.
Hagel apologized for the comment last month, but Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) issued a statement last week saying he was “strongly opposed” to Hagel. Frank, who is lobbying for a temporary Senate appointment, walked that back on Monday, saying he actually wanted Hagel confirmed.
One administration official said the White House is aware that some Democrats, like Schumer, have said they're not particularly keen on Hagel taking over the Pentagon. But they will be having discussions going forward with those opposed to iron out any issues such as Israel, the official said.
“That will be part of this process,” the official said. “He's a strong supporter of Israel.”
“When the Senate considers the totality of his career, they will confirm him for secretary of Defense,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at Monday’s press briefing.
One person the White House might turn to as it lobbies senators from both parties on Hagel is Vice President Biden, who considers Hagel a friend.
The two not only served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but they have worked on legislation and traveled extensively together over the course of the 12 years they overlapped in the Senate.
A former senior administration official said how Hagel performs in the hearing will be critical.
“His [nomination] will be a little different from, say, Sen. John Kerry’s," the former official said, referring to the Massachusetts Democratic senator whom Obama has nominated to be secretary of State. “No doubt it’s a slightly more complicated one than others before him.”