Photos: Chuck Hagel through the years
Click here to view a 2007 World-Herald Bureau article on Hagel announcing his retirement.
WASHINGTON — Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel could soon trade the theoretical work of think tanks and classrooms for making life-and-death decisions at the Pentagon.
Bloomberg News, CNN, Fox News and NBC are among the news organizations reporting that the Republican is now the leading contender to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, based on sources familiar with the selection process.
President Barack Obama invited Hagel, 66, to the White House on Dec. 4 to discuss the position, an administration official said. Obama has made no final decision on the appointment, according to news reports Thursday.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on whether Obama is considering Hagel, saying only that the two-term former GOP lawmaker is widely respected.
Panetta, 74, has indicated that he won't serve during Obama's second term. Panetta's successor will have to face a shrinking budget and the need to cut defense programs, as well as manage the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Hagel did not respond to a World-Herald request for comment. He is a professor at Georgetown University; chairman of the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank; and co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.
The prospect of a Hagel appointment set Capitol Hill abuzz Thursday, although senators one would expect to be in the loop professed ignorance.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said they had heard nothing from the White House on the matter.
Reid said he had enjoyed working with Hagel, and Levin described a possible Hagel appointment as “terrific.”
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said they had heard nothing.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said that he had no inside information but that Hagel “has everything any president would want in a secretary of defense.” Hagel endorsed Kerrey's recent failed bid for the Senate.
Johanns was the most recent Nebraskan to serve in the Cabinet, as secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush.
As the Hagel rumors intensified Thursday afternoon, Susan Rice, the embattled U.N. ambassador, withdrew from consideration as secretary of state. That move came after a standoff with GOP senators who vowed to vigorously oppose her nomination.
Rice's departure elevates Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts — like Hagel, a Vietnam veteran — as the most likely choice to be the nation's top diplomat when Hillary Rodham Clinton departs. Kerry had also been seen as a potential defense nominee, so nominating him for secretary of state could clear the way for Hagel to oversee the Pentagon.
Obama accepted Rice's decision, but he did so with a swipe at Republicans: “While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice ... her decision demonstrates the strength of her character.”
Rice had become the public face of the administration's tangled description of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 of this year, when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in what is now known to have been a terrorist attack.
In a letter to Obama, Rice withdrew her name, saying she was convinced that the confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities.”
Obama had been expected to announce his new national security team next week, but that could be pushed back because of fiscal cliff negotiations.
If Hagel were tapped, it would provide Obama's Cabinet with a bit of bipartisan flavor, but it's unclear how much help such a move would be with the GOP.
Hagel angered many Republicans with his frequent criticisms of Bush's handling of the Iraq War, with his jabs at the foreign policy credentials of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and with what appeared to be tacit support for Obama's 2008 presidential bid.
Back in Nebraska, speculation about Hagel was met with we-told-you-so shrugs from Republicans.
“He burned the last timber in the bridge that remained between Chuck Hagel and the Republicans when he came back and endorsed Kerrey,” said Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Johanns and others speculated at the time that the endorsement was Hagel's attempt to score points with Obama and land a Cabinet post. That, Fahleson said, looks like what has happened.
Hagel spoke with Vice President Joe Biden on the day of the endorsement, Fahleson noted. “He was currying favor with the Obama administration.”
This report contains material from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press.
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