Hagel’s successful nomination would add a well-known Republican to the president’s second-term Cabinet at a time when he is looking to better bridge the partisan divide, particularly after a bitter election campaign.
But the expected nomination has drawn sharp criticism in recent weeks, particularly from Republicans, who have questioned Hagel’s commitment to Israel’s security.
The choice sets up a confirmation fight of the sort that Obama appeared unwilling to have over Susan E. Rice, his preferred pick for secretary of state. Rice pulled out of consideration for that job last month after facing sharp Republican criticism about her characterization of the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Hagel’s selection an “in-your-face nomination.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Hagel’s record would be given a fair shake in the Senate if he is nominated. McConnell stopped short of saying whether he would support his former colleague.
“He’s certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.” He added: “The question we’ll be answering, if he’s the nominee, is: Do his views make sense for that particular job? I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee. And he will be.”
The Hagel nomination will begin what White House officials have said will probably be a busy week of announcements about who will fill Obama’s second-term Cabinet and senior staff positions.
The president returned Sunday from a curtailed holiday in Hawaii and will begin making final personnel decisions that were delayed by the year-end negotiations with Congress over taxes and spending cuts.
Foreign policy tussle
Despite the opposition to a Hagel nomination that has arisen on Capitol Hill, a senior administration official said Sunday that the White House expects him to receive the support of Democrats, as well as many Republicans who served with him.
“Having a name floated and having one officially put forward are two different things,” the official said.
Hagel, who was twice awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Vietnam, served in the Senate for two terms, ending in 2009.
He was an outspoken and often independent voice as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, breaking with many in his party to sharply criticize the management of the Iraq war after he initially supported the U.S.-led invasion.
“A lot of Republican opposition is rooted in the fact that he left his party on Iraq,” the senior administration official said. “And we think it will be very hard for Republicans to stand up and be able to say that they oppose someone who was against a war that most Americans think was a horrible idea.”
Hagel also has been a strong advocate for veterans, an issue that Obama has spoken about frequently as tens of thousands of U.S. troops return from battlefields after more than a decade of war. The administration official said Hagel, as a result, is “uniquely qualified” to help wind down the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and make budget decisions to support the returning troops.
Some of the recent criticism directed at Hagel has focused on his mixed record over the imposition of sanctions on Iran. As a senator, Hagel opposed several bills to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran. But he also supported measures to put in place sanctions as part of multinational efforts, and he endorsed labeling Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.
Hagel’s record has raised concern among some of Israel’s supporters in the United States, who fear that he may not be sufficiently committed to that country’s security.
But his defenders point to his record as a senior senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, where he voted for nearly $40 billion in military aid to Israel over his tenure.
Obama, who worked with Hagel on nuclear nonproliferation issues and other foreign policy matters in the Senate, has vowed to prevent Iran from using its uranium-enrichment program to develop a nuclear weapon.
Obama has worked to tighten both U.S. and international sanctions to pressure Iran into giving up the effort, moves that Hagel has supported in recent interviews. The Iranian government has said that it is pursuing nuclear power, not weapons.
A network of supporters
Since leaving office, Hagel has served as co-chairman of Obama’s intelligence advisory board. Hagel has advised the president to open talks with Hamas, the armed Palestinian movement that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. He also has complained about the influence that Israel’s supporters exert on members of Congress, telling writer Aaron David Miller in an interview for his 2008 book that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
“If Hagel is nominated, it is very difficult to imagine a circumstance in which I could support his nomination,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said on “Fox News Sunday.”
But Hagel has many supporters, including former ambassadors, senators and secretaries of state who value his experience and independence.
A network of supporters has rallied in recent weeks to defend Hagel’s record as the criticism has grown. The supporters also said privately that they expect him to receive strong public backing from many Republicans and Democrats alike once the nomination is official.
Writing last week in the Wall Street Journal, Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, called Hagel “a statesman,” adding that “America has few of them.”
Hagel, 66, would be taking over the Pentagon at a time of budget cuts and a changing mission after two long wars. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is retiring to his home in California. Hagel would become Obama’s third defense secretary; Robert M. Gates, a member of the George W. Bush administration, was retained in the post until 2011.
If confirmed, Hagel would be the second Republican in Obama’s Cabinet, after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.