WASHINGTON—The long-debated fiscal cliff deal is less than a week old, but President Barack Obama is not shying away from new battles with Republicans. President Obama on Monday tapped former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan to head up the CIA, setting up what could be two bitter confirmation fights on Capitol Hill.
Hagel, who represented Nebraska in the Senate from 1997 to 2009, is drawing fire from conservatives over his anti-Israel positions and comments, while liberals are up in arms over his stance on homosexual issues.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Hagel an “in your face” nomination, and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., predicted the nomination process “would be divisive and distracting for Congress, the administration, and the American people.”
In Monday’s Washington Post, Log Cabin Republicans, the pro-homosexual wing of the GOP, took out a full-page ad to oppose Hagel, who has previously said he supported the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
In 1998, Hagel opposed an “openly, aggressively gay” man nominated for an ambassador post, but he apologized for those comments last month, earning him the support of some liberals, including former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the Senate’s first openly gay member, said she is reserving judgment on Hagel until she can meet with him to determine if he was sincere about his apology.
Conservative Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is also taking a wait-and-see approach, although for different reasons. He said in the midst of significant national security challenges “it is critical to have strong leadership at the Pentagon that can respond to our evolving and emerging threats,” and Hagel needs to show how he would “strengthen, modernize, and reform” U.S. national defense. Last year Hagel said the Defense Department’s budget was “bloated” and the Pentagon needed to be “pared down.”
Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, will have to overcome the same concerns raised four years ago when his name was floated for the CIA’s top job in the first Obama administration. Brennan withdrew his name in 2008 after he was tied to the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” during the George W. Bush administration, but on Monday he stood with Hagel flanking Obama as the president lauded both men for their “invaluable” experience.
Brennan spent 25 years with the CIA before retiring in 2005 to become CEO of The Analysis Corporation, a security consulting firm near Washington, D.C. He’s been one of the chief architects of the Obama administration’s controversial drone program, which the president has increasingly used to achieve his counterterrorism objectives.
In an interview on ABC’s This Week last year, Brennan said: “Unfortunately, sometimes you have to take life to save lives, and that’s what we’ve been able to do to prevent these individual terrorists from carrying out their murderous attacks.”
Both Hagel and Brennan have taken controversial stances on Iran, including Hagel opposing sanctions and Brennan calling for an end to “Iran-bashing.”
Hagel, Brennan, and Obama’s pick for secretary of state, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., now face confirmation hearings in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 55-45 majority.
Some in the nation’s capital believe Obama’s nominations are aimed at picking calculated fights that he can win. Whether or not he will emerge victorious remains to be seen, but if a fight is what he wants, the president is getting his wish.