WASHINGTON President Barack Obama will nominate Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary, a senior administration official said Sunday, choosing a former Senate colleague he grew close to during overseas trips and signaling he's ready for a contentious confirmation fight likely dominated by questions about Hagel's stands on Israel and Iran.
Obama, who avoided a Capitol Hill battle by deciding not to nominate United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice as his first choice for secretary of state, went ahead with Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, even as leading Republicans announced their opposition, though they stopped short of saying they might try to block Hagel.
Seeking to soften the ground, the White House was alerting Senate Democrats that Hagel's selection as the successor to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Obama's second-term cabinet was imminent, according to a congressional official.
Obama, who returned to Washington on Sunday from his Hawaiian vacation, was expected to nominate Hagel as early as today. Congress is on break this coming week.
The officials requested anonymity in order to discuss Hagel's nomination ahead of Obama.
Hagel, a moderate Republican, built a strong relationship with Obama during their travel as senators. But the former Nebraska lawmaker has faced withering criticism from Congress since emerging as the front-runner for the Pentagon post. In sticking with Hagel, Obama appears willing to take on the fight.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said earlier Sunday that he was reserving judgment on whether to support Hagel. But he predicted the former Nebraska senator would face serious questions about his stands on Iran and Israel.
Any nominee must have "a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military," McConnell, R-Ky., said on ABC's "This Week."
Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on peace in Afghanistan. Some lawmakers have been troubled by his comments on Israel, including his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the U.S.