President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Republican former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to be defense secretary, and top White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to be CIA director. Obama pressed the Senate to confirm them quickly, warning "we don't like to leave a lot of gaps" in senior national security posts.
"Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve," the president said in a ceremony in the White House's East Room, flanked by the former lawmaker, Brennan, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and acting CIA director Michael Morell.
Obama's announcement was his latest move to round out his second-term Cabinet, following his nomination of Democratic Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. He is also expected to name a new treasury secretary soon to replace the departing Timothy Geithner.
With both Hagel and Brennan expected to face a fight in the Senate, the president used his remarks to squeeze wary lawmakers.
“I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly. When it comes to national security, we don’t like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in," Obama said. “So we need to get moving quickly on this.”
Republican resistance to Hagel had been building before the official announcement. And even as Obama spoke, Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will vet Hagel's nomination, said he had "serious concerns about positions" his former colleague "has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years."
Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam and still carries shrapnel in his chest, would be the first former enlisted soldier to head the Pentagon. But his nomination has drawn fire from Republican senators, who point to his votes against sanctions on Iran and complaints about the pro-Israel "Jewish lobby."
Hagel has also moved to defuse objections from the gay and lesbian community over remarks he made in 1998, when he criticized James Hormel, President Bill Clinton's choice for ambassador to Luxembourg, for being "openly, aggressively gay." He apologized last week, calling the remark "insensitive."
White House officials expect a confirmation fight—but say it is one they will ultimately win. They predict that Hagel, who served two terms in the Senate and left office in January 2009, will face tough questions about administration plans for implementing spending cuts at the Pentagon, the increasingly tense standoff over Iran's nuclear program and the looming troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
After voting in favor of the Iraq War in late 2002, Hagel infuriated conservatives by turning sharply against then-President George W. Bush's troop "surge." His outspoken criticisms drew fire from then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Let's say I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," Cheney told Newsweek in an interview. "But it's very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved."
Obama paid tribute to Hagel’s military service, and underlined that the former lawmaker knows that war is “something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary." And he stressed that Hagel “represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington” and predicted he would “speak his mind” from the Pentagon.
Hagel did not address criticisms of his approach to Israel in his remarks at the White House—but had aimed to refute them in an exclusive interview with his hometown Lincoln Journal Star. He insisted that foes of his nomination had “completely distorted” his record and that he had always shown “unequivocal, total support for Israel.”
There is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel," he said.
Brennan's nomination to succeed retired Gen. David Petraeus—who left the CIA in November after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer—is not expected to face serious opposition. The meatiest parts of his confirmation hearings will likely take place behind closed doors, such as potentially sharp questions from liberal senators over Obama's controversial program of assassinating suspected extremists with drone strikes. Those attacks are deeply unpopular overseas, where they have been blamed for civilian casualties and tarred as violations of national sovereignty. But criticisms will likely focus more on the president's policies than on Brennan's general qualifications for the job.
Few aides, if any, better reflect Obama’s embrace of controversial Bush-era national security policies. After winning the White House in 2008, the president considered Brennan to head the CIA, but Brennan withdrew his name from consideration when it became apparent that his service under Bush had rendered him unconfirmable. Liberal groups had accused him of failing to stop the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that fit international definitions of torture, like waterboarding. In 2012, that connection is apparently no longer a disqualifier.
At the ceremony, the president highlighted Brennan's leadership of the war on al-Qaida and paid tribute to his work ethic: "I'm not sure he's slept in four years."
Brennan underlined that he was "neither a Republican nor a Democrat," and vowed to ensure that the CIA "has the tools it needs" while pursuing "a full and open discourse" with Congress on intelligence activities.
Obama’s decision to go with Hagel comes after the White House backed off a confirmation battle last month over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was widely seen as the president’s favorite to succeed Clinton. Administration officials assessed that Rice could not be confirmed after centrist Republican Sen. Susan Collins came out against her.
Hagel's biggest obstacle is likely to be his comment, in a 2006 interview, that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" and his follow-up remark that "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator." Some of the former lawmaker's critics have suggested that those words mark him as hostile to Israel.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement released Monday that he hoped Hagel would “clarify and explain his comments about the ‘Jewish Lobby’ that were hurtful to many in the Jewish Community” and address “concerns” about his approach to Israel.
Still, Foxman said: “Sen. Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative.”
Democrats have 55 votes in the Senate (including two independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine). Republicans have 45. Sixty are needed for confirmation.
Panetta and Morell both spoke at the event and warmly endorsed their would-be successors. Panetta brought down the house with a quip about his plans to leave public service after a half-century to spend more time with his family and his walnut farm where, he says, he'd be "dealing with a different set of nuts."
Rachel Hartman contributed to this report.