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Confirmation Battle Brewing For Defense Pick Hagel

Chuck Hagel would be the first Defense secretary to have worn the uniform of an enlisted man, and also the first to have fought in Vietnam. Hagel won two purple hearts, and still carries some of the scars and shrapnel from that war. Obama says that makes him the kind of Pentagon leader that U.S. troops deserve.

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President Obama's pick to run the Defense Department has experience wearing combat boots. And he might want to lace them back up for his upcoming confirmation hearing. Chuck Hagel is a Republican and a former senator from Nebraska. He became the president's official nominee for secretary of Defense. The president also tapped to be the next director of the CIA, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

He urged the Senate to act quickly to confirm both nominees, but NPR's Scott Horsley reports there could be at least one battle brewing.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Chuck Hagel would be the first defense secretary to have worn the uniform of an enlisted man. And also the first was fought in Vietnam. Hagel won two purple hearts and still carries some of the scars and shrapnel from that war. Mr. Obama says that makes him the kind of Pentagon leader U.S. troops deserve.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary.

HORSLEY: As a senator, Hagel initially supported the war in Iraq, but later became one of its most outspoken critics. That's made him an outcast with some of his fellow Republicans, who also accuse Hagel of being insufficiently supportive of Israel.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN his nomination is an in-your-face pick by the president.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues.

HORSLEY: Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, who also edits the Open Zion blog of The Daily Beast. He says unlike most Republicans in Congress, Hagel was humbled by what he witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he remains wary of any U.S. military intervention in Iran.

PETER BEINART: The real question is why is the mainstream, as Lindsey Graham defined it, still consider to be where American foreign policy should be.

HORSLEY: In announcing the nomination yesterday, Mr. Obama said he welcomes Hagel's straight talk and his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. Hagel said he's grateful for a chance to serve, as the war in Afghanistan winds down.

CHUCK HAGEL: Mr. President, I will always give you my honest and most informed counsel.

HORSLEY: In an interview with his home state newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel said his critics have completely distorted his record, with charges that he's lukewarm towards Israel and soft on Iran. While he opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran as ineffective, Hagel said he supports international sanctions. Mr. Obama calls that attitude a big plus for Hagel.

OBAMA: He understands that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and with friends.

HORSLEY: Hagel also raised eyebrows among gay rights groups for arguing back in 1998, that a, quote, "openly, aggressively gay man would not make an effective ambassador." Last month, Hagel apologized for those comments.

Fred Sainz, of the Human Rights Campaign, thinks Hagel could put this criticism to rest, if he speaks up clearly for gay rights during his confirmation hearing.

FRED SAINZ: Those comments due date back 15 or more years. And we very clearly know that Americans have very quickly evolved on the issues of gay and lesbian equality.

HORSLEY: The issue is important because the Defense Department is still adjusting to having openly gay service members.

The Pentagon will also be adjusting to smaller budgets in the years to come. Beinart says Hagel is well-suited for that.

BEINART: My suspicion is that's one of the reasons that Obama likes Hagel, because he thinks that Hagel sees the defense budget in the larger context. A massive military budget and a huge global military footprint don't actually make you stronger if they're driving you deeper into debt.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also nominated his top counterterrorism adviser to head the CIA. John Brennan is a longtime veteran of the intelligence agency, who spent the last four years as the president's watchdog for disasters. It's often Brennan's job to inform the president about mayhem, like last month's elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. He rarely lets his guard down, Mr. Obama says, even during a presidential vacation on Martha's Vineyard.

OBAMA: It was in the summer. It's August, he's in full suit and tie.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: And one of the reporters asked him: Don't you ever get any downtime. And John said, I don't do downtime.

(LAUGHTER)

HORSLEY: One person who is looking forward to more downtime is the current Defense secretary, Leon Panetta. After years in Washington, Panetta says he's eager to retire to his California walnut farm, where he jokes he'll be dealing with a different set of nuts.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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