Hagel Nomination Could Face Resistance From GOP Over Israel, Iran
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President Obama rounded out his second-term national security team today. He nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be his new secretary of defense and his top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to lead the CIA. They join Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who was nominated in December as secretary of state. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more on today's nominees and why Hagel's confirmation could mean a fight for the White House.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president made the announcements in the East Room, flanked by his nominees and the men that Hagel and Brennan will replace: retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the acting head of the CIA, Michael Morell.
Mr. Obama said he was confident both men would do an outstanding job and that his only consideration in selecting them was who would do the best job securing America. He said Hagel would be a historic choice. If confirmed, he'd be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defense and the first Vietnam vet.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. 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. My frame of reference, he has said, is geared towards the guy at the bottom who's doing the fighting and the dying.
LIASSON: Brennan, like Hagel, has been close to the president for years. A CIA veteran, he's overseen all counterterrorism activities from the start of the Obama administration. Brennan is the official who tells the president first about attacks abroad and at home in places like Newtown, Connecticut. Mr. Obama praised Brennan's perspective and his ferocious work ethic.
OBAMA: When I was on Martha's Vineyard, John came and did the press briefing. It was in the summer. It's August. He's in full suit and tie. And one of the reporters asked him, don't you ever get any downtime? And John said, I don't do downtime. He's not even smiling now.
LIASSON: The president urged the Senate to confirm both nominees as soon as possible. That's not expected to be a problem for Brennan, but there will be a fierce battle over Hagel, which the president seemed to acknowledge.
OBAMA: In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. And that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team.
LIASSON: Hagel is a Republican, but he doesn't have strong support among his own party. Many consider him a turncoat for eventually opposing the Iraq War and for endorsing Mr. Obama in 2008. Leslie Gelb is the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He says the president's choice says a lot.
LESLIE GELB: It would have been easier to pick some others. But in the case of Hagel, I think he sees a kindred spirit, somebody who is very reluctant to get involved in new wars and somebody who wants to figure out ways to reduce military spending, and he feels that Hagel would be a strong ally on those key issues.
LIASSON: It might help, in other words, to have a Republican and a veteran to oversee the drawdown from Afghanistan and the shrinking of the military budget. Hagel's nomination comes after Mr. Obama floated and then withdrew the name of Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Gelb says this confirmation fight will be different.
GELB: Susan had her opponents, and she had supporters, but they weren't as strong as Chuck Hagel's supporters. Hagel's been around for a while, and he's made a lot of friends, and he has a lot of admirers. So they are lining up on the other side, and you're actually going to have a battle.
LIASSON: Opposition to Hagel comes from several directions. There are pro-Israel groups unhappy about Hagel's statement that the, quote, "Jewish lobby" intimidates people in Washington, and gay groups angry over a remark he made 14 years ago calling one of President Clinton's ambassadors aggressively gay. Hagel has recently apologized for that. The White House considers both Jewish and gay opposition to be manageable and expects most Democrats to support the president. But the resistance from conservative Republicans is another matter. They say Hagel is out of the mainstream on Iran and Israel. It's not known yet how broad or strong that Republican opposition will turn out to be, but the White House believes Hagel's confirmation is a fight that, while difficult, can be won and at a price worth paying. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.