WASHINGTON — If President Obama taps Chuck Hagel for a top post in his administration, the former Nebraska senator should expect a warmer Capitol Hill reception than U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is getting.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the Republican met with Obama at the White House to discuss joining his national security team and that Obama intended to announce his nominees for secretary of state and defense secretary by year's end. The president also has an opening for the next head of the CIA.
Hagel, a professor of government at Georgetown University, declined to comment on the report through an assistant. Hagel also serves as co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.
If Hagel were nominated at defense, the Senate Armed Services Committee and its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., would be responsible for his confirmation hearing. Several committee members spoke Tuesday to The World-Herald.
“He's obviously well-qualified if the president goes in that direction,” Levin said of Hagel.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said senators usually extend collegiality to former members and there is good feeling toward Hagel on both sides of the aisle.
Positive comments about Hagel's possible role contrast with the reception Rice is receiving as a potential replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Republican senators have expressed concerns about Rice's handling of the administration's response to the attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Hagel, too, has ruffled feathers over the years among Republicans. He attacked President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War, joined Obama on a high-profile trip to the Middle East in 2008 and sharply criticized GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin for a lack of foreign policy credentials, to name a few examples.
Still, a number of Hagel's former GOP colleagues praised him Tuesday when asked about the prospect of Hagel's joining the Cabinet.
“He's a good guy,” said Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a frequent critic of Rice's who is in line to be the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he's worried about the Obama administration simply promoting loyalists and would prefer someone willing to tell the president “no.” Hagel clearly has demonstrated a willingness to part company with his president.
“I would think he would have the necessary degree of independence that you would expect,” Sessions said.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., served on the Intelligence Committee with Hagel. He said he likes the Nebraskan.
“He was in the Republican mainstream, and then ... either the stream dried up or he chose another canoe,” Roberts said.
Sessions and Roberts said they would want to hear from Hagel before taking any position on his possible nomination.
Roberts wants to hear Hagel's stance on the Middle East, Benghazi and Iran. Sessions wants to hear Hagel's vision on foreign policy and defense.
“Hagel has a number of firm views ... and if they're sufficiently contrary to my own, I might not favor his appointment, because I want to know where he's going to take the department. But in terms of seriousness and experience, I think he would meet that test.”
Sen. Ben Nelson is Nebraska's senior senator and a member of Armed Services. Asked whether the administration had alerted him to the possibility of a Hagel appointment, Nelson said he would not discuss any conversations with the White House.
He also deferred when asked whether Hagel would be a good choice for the Cabinet.
Hagel had a frosty relationship with Nelson, as competitors and when they served together. Nelson is retiring before a Hagel nomination would hit the Senate.
“I think it's up to the president to decide that, and I'm one who will support whatever decision the president makes on his appointments,” Nelson said.
Nelson's replacement, Republican Sen.-elect Deb Fischer, is seeking a seat on Armed Services. That could put her in the chair for Hagel's confirmation just months after Hagel endorsed her opponent, Democrat Bob Kerrey.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., suggested after the endorsement that Hagel was angling for a spot in the administration. Johanns didn't repeat the assertion about his friend Tuesday, saying he wanted to put that behind them.
Johanns, who served as secretary of agriculture under Bush, said Hagel would do a good job in the Cabinet.
“Notwithstanding our little disagreement in the recent election,” Johanns said, “Chuck is a good friend and he certainly has a lot of passion for this area.”
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