Updated Monday, January 7, 2013 at 06:14 AM
President Obama is turning to a prominent Republican to lead the Pentagon as it faces the challenge of winding down the war in Afghanistan and possible reductions in military spending.
But the nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, which White House officials said Sunday is expected to be announced on Monday, has already encountered stiff opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike because of Hagel's views on Israel and Iran and his comments about an ambassador who was gay.
Republicans, in particular, have raised objections to statements by Hagel that they have described as dismissive of Israel and soft on Iran. Hagel once described pro-Israel lobbying groups as the "Jewish lobby." He has insisted that he is a strong supporter of Israel.
"His views with regard to Israel, for example, and Iran and all the other positions that he's taken over the years will be very much a matter of discussion in the confirmation process," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the Republican leader in the Senate, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
McConnell said he had not decided whether he would support Hagel. "I think there will be a lot of tough questions for Sen. Hagel, but he will be treated fairly by Republicans in the Senate," McConnell said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday that he personally liked Hagel, but that he was "out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy."
"This is an in-your-face nomination of the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel," Graham said on CNN. "I don't know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon — little if any — so I think it's an extremely controversial choice."
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran of the Army with two Purple Hearts, said in a recent interview with the history magazine Vietnam: "I'm not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process. ... I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."
In the Senate, Hagel voted to give the George W. Bush administration authority to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but later he harshly criticized the conduct of both wars, irritating fellow Republicans and making him popular with Democrats critical of those wars.
Critics have focused on his calls for direct negotiations with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that the U.S. and Israel refuse to deal with directly, and his votes against some Iran sanctions.
Backers say Hagel showed his support for Israel by voting repeatedly to provide it with military aid and by calling for a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians that should not include any compromise regarding Israel's Jewish identity and that would leave Israel "free to live in peace and security."
They note that he also supported three major Iran sanctions bills: the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998, the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 and the Iran Freedom Support Act of 2006.
In 2008, he criticized GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, saying she lacked foreign-policy credentials and that it would be "a stretch" to consider her qualified to become president. His wife, Lilibet Hagel, endorsed Obama in his first run for president.
As defense secretary, Hagel would preside over the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan and the waning days of the war, and would direct some of the steepest cuts in Pentagon spending in years.
Hagel has indicated that he would be comfortable with quickly drawing down the remaining 66,000 troops as Pentagon officials say the White House desires.
His task would be to restructure a pared-down military that can step away from the grinding wars of the past 11 years and refocus on a swath of regional challenges from Syria, Iran and North Korea to terrorism in Africa and the defense buildup in the Pacific.
Hagel's candidacy has also raised questions among some liberal groups because of a statement he made 14 years ago about President Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel. Hormel, he said, was not qualified because he was "openly, aggressively gay." Hagel has since apologized.
His experience and his allies on Capitol Hill will work to his benefit.
"Certainly his name coming forward is one I'm very open to," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who served with Hagel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I had good relations with him while he was in the Senate. Certainly (he's) a veteran and someone who also spent a lot of time around the world understanding the relations other countries have with the U.S. and vice versa."
Coming confirmation battles for Hagel and other Cabinet appointees will likely open a new schism between the White House and Congress. Fierce Republican resistance has already derailed the candidacy of one Cabinet nominee. Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state after lawmakers threatened to disrupt her nomination over statements made about the death of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama instead nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected Democratic senator from North Dakota, criticized the rancor surrounding Hagel's nomination, calling it symptomatic of Washington gridlock.
"This kind of fight is the fight that the people of this country get so frustrated about and with," Heitkamp said. "Let Chuck Hagel get nominated, if he's going to be nominated, and let's hear what the senator has to say."
Includes material from Tribune Washington bureau and The Associated Press
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.