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Chuck Hagel: why Obama is using political capital on Pentagon pick (+video)

President Obama just made it by one 'fiscal cliff,' with more to come. But he has shown he won't shy away from a fight in nominating former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon.

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He also expressed clear personal affection for Hagel in his statement Monday. As Senate colleagues, the two had traveled together in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hagel is also close to Vice President Biden, a longtime Senate colleague. Hagel has already served the Obama administration in other capacities, including as co-chair of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.

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Now that Hagel has been nominated for the Pentagon, it is crucial that the next stage – courtesy calls to key Senate members – goes well. It is especially imperative that he reassure senators on his commitment to Israel.

On Sunday, senior White House officials reached out to key American Jewish interest groups and sought to address any concerns about Hagel, according to CNN. And on Monday, various Jewish groups put out statements of support for Hagel. However the biggest and most powerful of the pro-Israel groups – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC – so far has not put out a statement.

Other aspects of the timing of Hagel’s nomination also matter. Obama just burned some political capital in getting through the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff” deadline, in which he got the Republicans to concede on tax hikes for the wealthy. Three more fiscal cliffs loom – on spending cuts, the debt ceiling, and on short-term federal spending – and he will have less leverage than he did last week. So it may seem curious that he has chosen to embark on a tough confirmation fight amid all these other battles.

But the same question must be asked of the Republicans: Why use up political capital over a Defense pick that most people outside the beltway don’t care about? Capitol Hill Republicans already have a bad public image, and with all the other battles looming, they may decide to let this one go. Traditionally, with some exceptions, senators allow presidents to have the Cabinet they want.

The three Republicans already opposed to Hagel are Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a top member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – which will hold hearings on the nomination – said in a statement Monday he has “serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared Hagel to be “well qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs.” But another prominent Jewish Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, voiced reservations.

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