If Chuck Hagel is selected as President Obama's next defense secretary, the former Nebraska senator could find himself battling the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on the fraught issue of how to deal with Iran -- that is if Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) leaves that committee to become secretary of state.
The White House is expected to announce its new national security nominations as early as this Friday, Dec. 21, depending on how the president's "fiscal cliff" negotiations are proceeding with House Speaker John Boehner.
Why not earlier? Kerry is slated to chair the Dec. 20 SFRC hearing on Benghazi featuring testimony by top State Department officials, which would be politically awkward if he were named as their future boss before the hearing. If Kerry is nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Menendez is the likely choice to replace him at the helm of the SFRC.
Menendez has opposed the Obama administration on some key foreign-policy issues over the last two years, none more openly than the issue of how to deal with Iran's ongoing progress towards a nuclear weapon.
This week, for example, Menendez is leading the effort, along with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to collect Senate signatures for a letter to Obama, obtained by The Cable, that urges the president to use his second term to pursue a more aggressive policy toward Iran.
The letter asks that Obama not pursue limited confidence-building measures in any future negotiations with Tehran, that Iran not be allowed to retain any enrichment capabilities at all, and that there be no diminution of pressure on the Iranian regime until it addresses all concerns over its nuclear program, closes the Fordow enrichment facility, and allows full inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the letter had 57 signatures.
Also Tuesday, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees unveiled a conference report on the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that includes new sanctions on Iran, written by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) -- measures that the White House opposed.
"The window is closing. The time for the waiting game is over," Menendez said on the Senate floor when unveiling the new sanctions last month
At the time, the National Security Council's legislative affairs office said the new sanctions were duplicative and confusing and told lawmakers that the White House opposed the Menendez-Kirk legislation.
"We do not believe additional authority to apply more sanctions on Iran is necessary at this time," the NSC told senators.
In previous such battles with the White House, Menendez's view has won the day, and new and increasingly harsh sanctions have passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.
That may set up the New Jersey lawmaker for a clash with Hagel, who as a senator was a rare GOP voice arguing against increased sanctions on Iran. In 2008, Hagel was blamed for blocking an Iran sanctions bill that Senate Democrats supported. As early as 2001, Hagel said that sanctions on Iran and Libya were ineffective. He was one of only two senators that year to vote against renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, along with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN).
As recently as May, Hagel told The Cable that he believed there was still time to pursue diplomacy with Iran.
"The two options -- attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran -- may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there's a ways to go before we get to those," Hagel said. "I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way."
Hagel may benefit from his ties to many of his former colleagues. But several Senate offices are gearing up to mount a campaign against Hagel, should he be nominated.
"There are a lot of senators, Democrats and Republicans, who are very outspoken on the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability through the imposition of sanctions and demonstration of a credible military threat," one senior Senate aide said. "Chuck Hagel is the antithesis of everything those members believe in."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.