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 U.N. 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 Pentagon front-runner for the Pentagon post. In sticking with Hagel, Obama appears willing to take on the fight.
Hagel is the second straight Obama favorite for a top national security post to face criticism from Capitol Hill even before being nominated. Rice withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state amid charges from GOP senators that she mislead the public in her initial accounting of the attacks on Americans in at a diplomat post in Benghazi, Libya.
If confirmed, Hagel would take over a Pentagon faces budget cut backs and a scaling back of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to meet with Obama in Washington this week to discuss the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after the war formally concludes at the end of 2014.
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 out Israeli allies, the Iranian threat, and the importance of having a robust military," McConnell said on ABC's "This Week."