WASHINGTON – President Obama plans to nominate former senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Vietnam veteran, to be secretary of defense, according to a person close to the process and a senior administration official.
The White House informed the Hagel camp over the weekend that Obama intends to announce the nomination today.
Hagels successful nomination would add a well-known Republican to the presidents 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 Hagels commitment to Israels security.
The choice sets up a confirmation fight of the sort that Obama appeared unwilling to have over Susan 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 Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In an appearance Sunday on CNNs State of the Union, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Hagels selection an in-your-face nomination.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Hagels 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.
Hes certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years, McConnell said on ABCs This Week. He added: The question well be answering, if hes 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 Obamas 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.
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.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., told an Indianapolis radio show last month that Republicans watched Chuck take positions that are, frankly, many of them are to the left of Barack Obama.
Hagel, who was twice awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in Vietnam, served in the U.S. 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 Afghanistan war by the close 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 about the imposition of sanctions on Iran. During his time in the Senate, 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.
Hagels record has raised concern among some of Israels supporters in the United States, who fear that he may not be sufficiently committed to that countrys security.
Hagel, 66, would be taking over the Pentagon at a time of budget cuts and a changing mission after two long wars.
If confirmed, Hagel would be the second Republican in Obamas Cabinet after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.