WASHINGTON -- President Obama plans on Monday to nominate Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska and Vietnam War veteran, to lead the Pentagon as Defense secretary, according to two sources familiar with the nomination process.
Hagel, 66, served two terms in the Senate from 1997 to 2009, and led an Army infantry squad in Vietnam in 1968. He was wounded in action there and received two Purple Hearts. An administration source confirmed that Hagel's nomination would be announced Monday. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because it had not been officially announced.
Hagel, if approved by the Senate, would succeed Leon Panetta. Hagel would inherit a military frayed by more than a decade of war and facing at least $500 billion in spending reductions over the next decade. It is also shedding about 100,000 soldiers and Marines.
When his name surfaced as a potential Defense secretary, Hagel came under criticism from some supporters of Israel and gay groups for comments he has made. Hagel once referred to the "Jewish lobby" in reference to advocates for Israel who lobbied the Senate; and he referred in 1998 to a nominee for ambassador in the Clinton administration as "aggressively gay."
Hagel said he misspoke about Israel's supporters, and has apologized for the comment about the gay nominee.
Hagel has also angered fellow Republicans. He voted to authorize President George W. Bush to use force in the run up to the Iraq War, but he later lamented the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined Sunday to endorse the prospective nomination of his former Senate GOP colleague, saying only that whoever is nominated will get a thorough vetting.
"I'm going to take a look at all the things Chuck has said over the years," McConnell said on ABC's This Week. "I'm going to want to see how the hearings go."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's number two Democrat, noted that Hagel is a Republican, a former senator from Nebraska, a decorated combat veteran who served in Vietnam, and has vast foreign policy experience. Speaking on CNN's State of the Union, Durbin also pointed out that Obama won the presidential nomination, and is entitled to name his team.
"Yes, (Hagel) is a serious candidate," Durbin said.
Some Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, said Hagel has been too critical of Israel and too soft on Iran and its nuclear program.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CNN that he likes Hagel personally, but he is "out of the mainstream" on foreign policy views, and his nomination would be "antagonistic." Graham also noted that Hagel has cut his ties to the Republican Party.
"This is an in-your-face nomination by the president," Graham said. "This is a controversial pick."
In a Meet the Press interview a week ago, Obama praised Hagel as "a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job."
As for the gay comment, Obama noted that Hagel has apologized for it.
Though a Republican, Hagel was critical of the Iraq War during the George W. Bush administration. In the fall, he endorsed a Democrat in the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska, former Senate colleague Bob Kerrey (who lost).
Washington engaged in a similar pre-emptive nomination fight late last year when Obama considered nominating United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of State; the president eventually nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for the post now held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hagel would face immediate decisions on key issues affecting the Pentagon. The pace of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan -- all U.S. forces are scheduled to depart by 2014 -- will be at the top of the list. There are about 66,000 U.S. troops there now, and commanders would like to keep as many there as possible through next summer, when fighting peaks.
Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Hagel appears likely to favor ending the U.S. military commitment rapidly.
"It's hard to believe he'd support commanders in the field as much as previous secretaries, in terms of where their instincts tend to be," O'Hanlon said in an e-mail. "I believe that his previous statements suggest he'd support a fast drawdown. I just hope he'd take time to reconsider before blessing that approach--as I'm sure he would."
On the budget, Hagel could be expected to challenge the brass on its commitment to keeping as many soldiers on active-duty as it did during the 1990s and pricey weapons systems such as the F-35 fighter jet, O'Hanlon said.
Over the next five years, the Army is scheduled to lose about 80,000 soldiers to reach 490,000 active-duty members. The Pentagon plans to spend nearly $400 billion to build about 2,500 of its next-generation fighter jet.
David Jackson, Tom Vanden Brook and Aamer S. Madhani, USA TODAY