WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will nominate former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary, a senior administration official said Sunday.
The selection of the decorated Vietnam combat veteran sets up a potentially contentious confirmation hearing because Hagel has come under scrutiny from his former colleagues over his positions on Israel and Iran. Some Republicans already have declared their public opposition to Hagel replacing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta in Obama’s second-term Cabinet.
Seeking to soften the ground, the White House was alerting Senate Democrats Sunday that Hagel’s selection was imminent, according to a congressional official.
Obama, who returned to Washington on Sunday from his Hawaiian vacation, was expected to nominate Hagel as early as Monday. Congress is on break this coming week.
The officials requested anonymity in order to discuss Hagel’s nomination ahead of Obama.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said earlier Sunday that he was reserving judgment on whether to support Hagel. But he predicted the former Nebraska senator would face serious questions about his stands on Iran and Israel.
Any nominee must have “a full understanding of our close relationship with out Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan. Some lawmakers have been troubled by his comments and actions on Israel, including his reference to the “Jewish lobby” in the United States.
McConnell, R-Ky., said any defense nominee must have “a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military.”
McConnell said Hagel, who left the Senate in 2009, has “certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years. The question we will be answering, if he’s the nominee, is do his views make sense for that particular job?”
McConnell said he would “wait and see how the hearings go and see whether Chuck’s views square with the job he would be nominated to do.” He added: “I’m going to take a look at all the things that Chuck has said over the years and review that, and in terms of his qualifications to lead our nation’s military.”
The second-ranking Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said in a statement that making Hagel defense secretary would be “the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East.” Cornyn did not say he would try to block a Hagel nomination.
Obama, in an interview that aired last Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” called Hagel “a patriot” who “has done extraordinary work” in the Senate and on an intelligence advisory board.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Hagel “is a serious candidate if the president chooses to name him.”
“This is a controversial pick,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN. “He is an antagonistic figure when it comes to the state of Israel. It’s a signal you’re sending to Iran at the worst possible time and to our allies.”
Obama has nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as his next secretary of state, in what was the president’s first step in filling out his second term Cabinet and national security team.
Kerry, as well as the nominees for the Pentagon and CIA, must be confirmed by the Senate.