Former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, considered close to former President George W. Bush, tried Monday to stem the tide of growing GOP opposition to the nomination of Chuck Hagel, the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, as the next secretary of Defense.
Having served with Hagel in the Senate, Gregg said he disagreed with Hagel’s positions on Israel and Iran but respected Hagel’s policy credentials. “Sure he has strong opinions,” Gregg said on MSNBC, but “in the Defense Department, they need somebody who thinks outside the box.”
“They need a creative guy down there who doesn’t have ‘defense-think’” and is willing to go against the grain in a time of shrinking budgets, said Gregg, who led George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns in New Hampshire.
Gregg’s support for Hagel was the second signal from the Bush family that Republicans should take a second look at Hagel. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Adviser to former President George H.W. Bush, has also been rounding up former generals and admirals to back Hagel.
On Sunday, President Obama called Hagel a “patriot” who served with distinction as an Army sergeant in Vietnam but stopped short of saying he would go ahead with the nomination.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has said that he couldn’t support Hagel and in another sign that Hagel’s prospects might be fading, several Senate Republicans said they doubted the nomination would go forward against the strong possibility of a nasty confirmation fight at hearings in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I would be very surprised if Chuck Hagel is nominated,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Corker said he had heard from a number of Senate Democrats who also were uneasy with Hagel getting the post as top civilian at the Pentagon.
Hagel had been considered the frontrunner for Secretary of Defense until opponents seized on his past comments about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” on U.S. foreign policy.
Hagel critics also zeroed in on his opposition in the 1990s to the nomination by former President Bill Clinton of the openly gay James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama noted that Hagel had apologized for the remarks about Hormel. When asked if the comments about gays should be a disqualifier, Obama said “Not that I see."
"I've served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot,” Obama said. “He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam, and is somebody who's currently serving on my Intelligence Advisory Board and doing an outstanding job."
But Obama declined to say whether he would nominate Hagel, adding that he had yet to make up his mind on who should succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has made clear that he wants to retire early next year.
If Hagel’s nomination failed to go forward, it would mark the second time in recent weeks that the frontrunner for a major Cabinet post was dropped from consideration.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration for the post as Secretary of State over her comments about the terror attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Others still considered top possibilities for Defense Secretary are Michelle Flournoy, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
On “Fox News’ Sunday,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said senators from both sides of the aisle were concerned about Hagel’s past policy positions about Israel and Iran.
"All of us like him as a person," Graham said, but "It'll be up to the President to make the selection. The hearings will matter. They'll matter a lot to me."
"If he sends Chuck Hagel up, it will be a confirmation hearing of consequence," Graham said. "There would be very little Republican support for his nomination, at the end of the day, there will be very few votes.”