Chuck Hagel faces a tough confirmation fight, but rejecting President Obama's pick to head the Pentagon would be an almost unprecedented act for the Senate, which has rarely rejected a Cabinet nominee chosen from within its own ranks.
Despite the objections of some Republicans — and even some Democrats — the president on Monday officially named Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, as his choice to succeed Leon E. Panetta, who is stepping down as secretary of defense. Mr. Obama also tapped anti-terrorism chief John O. Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
"These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country," Mr. Obama said during a ceremony in the White House. "I urge the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe."
He called Mr. Hagel "the leader our troops deserve" and someone who could make "tough fiscal choices" as the Pentagon faces possible budget cuts in the coming months.
Both nominations are expected to fuel contentious confirmation hearings, but history says the president's picks will likely be confirmed.
Since 1789, presidents have nominated a total of 122 senators for Cabinet posts. Only one of those nominations has ever been voted down on the floor of the Senate — former Sen. John Tower, the Texas Republican who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to be secretary of defense.
When a nominee is truly in trouble, such as former Sen. Tom Daschle, Mr. Obama's choice for secretary of Health and Human Services in 2009, the route to a respectable defeat is usually for the candidate to withdraw his or her name from consideration.
That was what happened with Mr. Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota whose nomination was undone by his failure to pay taxes on the free use of a car and driver for several years.
Mr. Hagel, a Republican, faced opposition from several Republican senators even before Mr. Obama announced his nomination. They question his commitment to Israel and his resoluteness toward Iran when it comes to its nuclear program.
Mr. Hagel has cautioned the United States and Israel against launching a military strike against Iran and infuriated some Israel backers by referring to the power of the "Jewish lobby" to members of Congress.
The Emergency Committee on Israel, which includes Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol on its board, is running a TV ad attacking Mr. Hagel's comments.
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Mr. Hagel an "in-your-face" choice by Mr. Obama and didn't rule out launching a filibuster to try to prevent a vote on the nomination.
"Hagel, if confirmed to be secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history," Mr. Graham said on CNN's "State of the Union."
As soon as the nomination was official, a handful of conservative lawmakers reiterated their ardent opposition.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said he was "profoundly concerned and disappointed" by Mr. Hagel's nomination, calling him "the wrong man for the job at a pivotal time."
"Recent reporting has made clear that Sen. Hagel's views and inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationships the United States shares with our greatest Middle East ally," said Mr. Cantor, who is Jewish.
The House gets no vote on the nomination, however.
Several senior Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold the confirmation hearing, already have signaled that they will oppose Mr. Hagel's nomination, including Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
Mr. Wicker said Monday that his former colleague's nomination is "divisive and distracting for Congress, the administration, and the American people."
Freshmen Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who was elected with strong backing from the tea party, told "Fox News Sunday" that it was "very difficult to imagine a circumstance in which I could support [Hagel's] confirmation."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona who serves as the panel's ranking Republican, considered Mr. Hagel a longtime friend while the two served in the Senate. But Mr. Hagel did not endorse Mr. McCain for president in 2008 and instead backed Mr. Obama. The two have diverged on foreign-policy issues, including the Iraq surge Mr. McCain supported.
After Mr. Hagel's nomination Monday, Mr. McCain did not say he would oppose him, but instead issued a statement expressing "serious concerns about positions [Hagel] has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years."
Democrats have questions
Mr. Hagel has taken fire from the left as well, for saying in 1998 that a Clinton administration nominee for an ambassadorship was "openly, aggressively gay." He has apologized for those comments.
The White House has defended Mr. Hagel's record and said his positions on Israel have been mischaracterized. After serving with him in the Senate and watching him vote for millions of dollars in assistance to Israel and support a series of sanctions on Tehran, the president respects Mr. Hagel and thinks his actions will be completely in line with the administration's, the president's aides say.
While nominating him Monday, Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Hagel would be the first defense secretary who had served as an enlisted man, as well as the first who had served in Vietnam, where he earned two purple hearts.
"He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary," the president said.
"As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength," Mr. Obama added. "They see one of their own."
Obama expects win
A source familiar with the Senate confirmation process said the White House expects some tough questioning but ultimately thinks Mr. Hagel will attract enough support that his confirmation will not be jeopardized.
"Obama is calculating that he will be able to rally enough wobbly Democrats and skeptical Republicans to overcome the strong opposition to Hagel," said Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.
"It's unlikely Hagel's nomination would make it to a vote if his candidacy is in trouble, but if Hagel were to lose, it would be a double rarity: a former senator rejected by a Senate controlled by the president's party," the National Constitution Center said in a blog post Monday.
The rejection of Mr. Tower was all the more remarkable because he had served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee until he retired in 1985. The debate over his nomination included accusations that he was a heavy drinker. Mr. Tower lost the vote along party lines in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Dick Cheney was later approved for the top job at the Pentagon.
The only other former senator ever to withdraw his name after being nominated was Thomas Ewing Sr., nominated to be secretary of war by President Johnson in 1868, according to the Senate historian's office.
The Senate, irate over Johnson's firing of the previous war secretary, Edwin Stanton, refused to act on the nomination.
The Senate has voted down only nine nominations in U.S. history, starting with the rejection of Roger B. Taney to become Treasury secretary in 1834 under President Jackson. (Taney would later become chief justice of the Supreme Court.)
Prior to Mr. Tower, the last Cabinet nominee to be voted down by the full Senate was Lewis L. Strauss, who was President Eisenhower's choice to become commerce secretary in 1959.
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