* Obama calls former lawmaker a patriot
* Republican senators criticize former colleague
By Jeff Mason and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON, Dec 30 President Barack Obama
offered strong support for former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel
as the potential next U.S. defense secretary but said in remarks
aired on Sunday that he had not yet decided on a nominee for the
Hagel is considered a leading candidate to replace outgoing
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, but the former Nebraska
lawmaker has come under criticism for his record on Israel and
for a comment that being gay was an inhibiting factor for being
"I've served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a
patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in
the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with
valor in Vietnam," Obama told NBC's "Meet the Press" in an
interview taped on Saturday and broadcast on Sunday.
Any nomination for defense secretary must be approved by the
Senate where some lawmakers have voiced criticism about their
"I think a lot of Republicans and Democrats are very
concerned about Chuck Hagel's positions on Iran sanctions, his
views toward Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, and that there is wide
and deep concern about his policies. All of us like him as a
person," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.
"There would be very little Republican support for his
nomination, at the end of the day, there will be very few
votes," Graham said on Fox News Sunday.
Republican Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma said bluntly: "I
cannot vote for Chuck Hagel."
Aside from his controversial statements, "he does not have
the experience to manage a very large organization like the
Pentagon," Coburn said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "If there's a
place that we need great management it's the Pentagon."
Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said on
the same television show that Hagel deserved "respect for the
service he's given our country in the military and in the
Senate" and should be given consideration. "He at least deserves
a hearing and an opportunity," he said.
Obama said he had seen nothing that would disqualify Hagel.
The president said Hagel had apologized for his comments
related to homosexuality, referred to by NBC's David Gregory in
"With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he
apologized for it," Obama said.
"And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive
change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about
gays and lesbians serving our country. And that's something that
I'm very proud to have led," he said.
Obama came out in favor of gay marriage in the middle of his
re-election bid this year. Earlier in his term he presided over
the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited
gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military.
Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, has faced questions
about his record on Israel.
Some of Israel's leading U.S. supporters contend that Hagel
at times opposed Israel's interests, voting several times
against U.S. sanctions on Iran, and made disparaging remarks
about the influence of what he called a "Jewish lobby" in
Obama, who has strained relations with Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has faced questions of his own from
the American Jewish community about his approach to the U.S.
Obama said Hagel was doing an "outstanding job" serving on
an intelligence advisory board and gave no indication on when he
would make his final decision about the defense chief job.
The president has already backed down once from a
contentious nomination, choosing Democratic Senator John Kerry
to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state rather than
going with his presumed first choice, U.S. Ambassador to the
United Nations Susan Rice, whom many Republicans opposed after
she made controversial remarks about the Sept. 11 attacks on a
U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.