After making it past one “fiscal cliff” with more to come, it’s an odd time for President Obama to be picking a fight with Congress over his choice to run the Pentagon.
In many ways, Mr. Obama’s choice, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, is a man without a party who has plenty of detractors on both sides of the aisle.
Even before it became official Monday, Mr. Hagel’s nomination had kicked up a cloud of consternation from those on the right who questioned his commitment to Israel and his willingness to get tough with sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
Those on the left aren’t overjoyed, either. They would rather have worked with one of their own at the Pentagon, and have questions about criticism in 1998 of a Clinton administration nominee for an ambassadorship for being “openly, aggressively gay.” Mr. Hagel has since apologized, and Democrats appear to be giving him a pass — at least for now.
But Mr. Obama chose his former Senate colleague anyway, putting the full weight of the presidency behind his selection and risking the political capital it takes to win confirmation battles in the world’s most exclusive club.
The president “has his hands full at the moment — why would he take on one more chore in dealing with Congress?” said Stephen Hess, a veteran staffer of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. “I guess partly because he really wants this guy.”
Sources familiar with the confirmation process say the White House would not have nominated Mr. Hagel if it were not certain the votes were there to confirm him, although recent history suggests that sometimes even the “safest” picks can unravel during the confirmation process.
But Mr. Obama clearly wants Mr. Hagel for the job. Even though Mr. Obama and Mr. Hagel overlapped for only two years in the Senate, they forged a lasting personal, as well as political, connection. Despite a longtime friendship with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Mr. Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, Sen. Hagel’s foreign policy positions — his opposition to the Iraq war and wariness about U.S. military action overseas — are more in line with Mr. Obama’s and he backed him over Mr. McCain in the 2008 race.
Mr. Hagel’s comments cautioning the United States and Israel against launching a military strike against Iran and referring to the power of the “Jewish lobby” on Capitol Hill have spurred a rapid-response media campaign of groups opposed to his nomination and raised the ire of several prominent pro-Israel Republicans in Congress.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said he was “profoundly concerned and disappointed” by the nomination, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a close ally of Mr. McCain’s, said Mr. Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history” if he wins confirmation.
Several other Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold the hearings, already have indicated they intend to vote against Mr. Hagel’s nomination.
“Usually, when you select someone from the other party, you do it in a symbolic sense and to attract a wide swath of support from both parties,” Mr. Hess said. “But in this case, he cannot count on a lot of Republican votes. It’s historically interesting. I have never seen anything like this, in fact.”
With Republicans still demanding answers about the administration’s handling of the deadly Sept. 11 attacks at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, many GOP lawmakers have vowed to use the confirmation to grill all nominees to Mr. Obama’s national security team. The certainty of a fight may have convinced Mr. Obama to proceed with the Hagel pick.
“Maybe [Mr. Obama] realized that the opposition is not going to give him a slam dunk on anything, so what did he have to lose but put up the person he really wanted?” said Pat Griffin, a longtime Senate aide who served in the Clinton administration’s office of legislative affairs and now teaches at American University.
Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate, which includes two independents who caucus with them, but some Democrats — especially those with strong Jewish constituencies — have hesitated to back Mr. Hagel publicly so far.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he is reserving judgment until after the hearings, and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, said he and other lawmakers “have questions that have to be answered” on Mr. Hagel’s stance on Iran and Israel.
One Democrat with a strong military background and the respect of the defense community, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, is squarely behind Mr. Hagel and could be critical to shepherding the nomination through the Senate.
“The president is going to throw everything he has at winning this nomination and to ask Democrats to stay with him,” Mr. Griffin said. “It would have a price not an insurmountable price, but it’s definitely something the president wants to avoid.”