US President Barack Obama was set to announce yesterday the nominations of Republican Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as the new CIA director, a senior administration official said.
The choice of Hagel will likely spark a confirmation battle in the Senate over whether the former Nebraska senator and Vietnam veteran is a strong enough supporter of key US ally Israel and over his past calls for military cuts.
Brennan, who formerly served at the CIA, will succeed retired general David Petraeus, who resigned amid a scandal over an extramarital affair with his biographer.
The Obama administration backed down from a tough Senate confirmation battle over US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who was Obama’s first pick to replace US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Rice withdrew her name from consideration after drawing heavy fire from Republicans for remarks she made in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year. Obama then nominated Democratic Senator John Kerry, a former presidential candidate.
“The administration has a lot of work to do on Hagel,” a Democratic Senate aide said on Sunday. “He is in a weaker position now than Rice ever was because Rice would have rallied Democrats behind her. The administration floated Hagel’s name, then neglected to defend him effectively when his critics started taking shots.”
However, the White House is confident it can weather criticism of Hagel’s record and garner enough votes from both sides of the political aisle to get his nomination through committee and win confirmation in the Democrat-led Senate.
“The president wants him, because he trusts him and he’s an independent voice,” a second source close to the situation said.
The source added that Hagel had received high-level messages of reassurance in recent days that his nomination was on track despite a campaign by his critics aimed at derailing it.
On Sunday, Republican lawmakers made clear that Hagel would face a tough nomination process.
“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN’s State of the Union.
Many Republicans contend that Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel’s interests. He voted several times against US sanctions on Iran and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
Hagel has also been critical of the size of the US military, telling the Financial Times in 2011 that the US Department of Defense was “bloated” and needed “to be pared down.”
Hagel has also been attacked by gay rights groups for remarks in 1998 questioning whether an “openly aggressively gay” nominee could be an effective US ambassador. He apologized for the comments last month, saying they were “insensitive.”
If confirmed, Hagel would become the first former enlisted soldier to lead the Pentagon. He served alongside his brother Tom in Vietnam and they earned five Purple Hearts between them.
Last month, Obama strongly supported Hagel as a possible replacement for US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has said he wants to leave in the second term.
Obama and Hagel bonded over their shared opposition to the Iraq War. Obama rose to national prominence through his criticism of the war, while Hagel isolated himself in the Republican Party by taking a similar position. The pair traveled to Iraq together in 2008.
While Obama may hope that his choice of a Republican to lead the military would be seen as a gesture of bipartisanship, Hagel has been sharply critical of his own party since leaving the Senate in 2009. Last year, he endorsed a Democratic Senate candidate in Nebraska.