Even as Obama was nominating Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) as secretary of State on Friday, the possible selection of Hagel, a Republican who served two terms as a U.S. senator from Nebraska, drew intensifying crossfire from influential pro-Israel groups, Iran hawks and the gay rights lobby.
Obama backed down Dec. 13 on his first choice for secretary of State, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, after she faced harsh GOP opposition for her comments about the attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Democratic foreign policy leaders and congressional allies privately criticized the White House's handling of the nominations, which some say follows a pattern of sloppy management of personnel selections. They worry that another retreat could embolden Republicans to challenge future nominations.
A top White House advisor said Friday that Obama was still considering Hagel, but that he was also looking at Michele Flournoy, who was Pentagon undersecretary for policy in Obama's first term, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy secretary, the Defense Department's second-ranking position.
The advisor said Obama hadn't settled on Hagel and was not deterred by the criticism now. But with Rice out of the running for a Cabinet post, Obama may seek diversity among his new team and give greater weight to nominating Flournoy as the first woman to run the Pentagon.
As criticism mounted, Hagel broke his silence Friday by apologizing for his comments in 1998, when he denigrated a nominee to be ambassador to Luxembourg as "openly, aggressively gay." In a statement, Hagel called his remarks "insensitive," and said "they do not reflect the totality of my public record."
Also Friday, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who will be the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the next Congress, complained in a C-SPAN interview about Hagel's reference to the "Jewish lobby" in a book by former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.
"It shows at the very best a lack of sensitivity, at the very worst perhaps a prejudice," Engel said. "And I'm concerned about it. I'm concerned about the nomination."
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