President Obama today rounded out his second-term national security team, nominating former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to head the Department of Defense and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the CIA.
Obama heralded the credentials of both candidates during an East Room press conference, flanked by both men and their predecessors, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and acting CIA chief Mike Morell.
"Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve," Obama said. "He is an American patriot."
Turning to Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, Obama said he was one of the "most skilled and respected" members of his national security team, contributing "strong analytic insights" and "invaluable perspective."
"I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly," Obama said. "When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in, so we need to get moving quickly on this."
But two weeks before his inauguration, Obama's selection of Hagel is expected to trigger a political storm over his confirmation in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of critics has already lined up against the pick.
"This is an in your face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN on Sunday. "I don't know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon -- little, if any, so I think it's an incredibly controversial choice."
The criticism stems from Hagel's controversial past statements on foreign policy, including a 2008 reference to Israel's U.S. supporters as "the Jewish lobby," public encouragement of negotiations between the United States, Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian group the State Department classifies as terrorists, and his stance on how to deal with Iran.
"Hagel has consistently been against economic sanctions to try to change the behavior of the Islamist regime, the radical regime in Tehran, which is the only way to do it, short of war," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said last month.
The Nebraska Republican has also drawn fire for his outspoken opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq and the subsequent troop "surge" ordered by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, which has been credited with helping bring the war to a close.
On the left, gay rights groups have criticized Hagel for comments he made in 1998 disparaging then-President Bill Clinton's nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel as "openly, aggressively gay." Hagel has since apologized for the remark as "insensitive."
In an interview with his hometown paper, the Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel today launched a rebuttal to critics, whom he said have "completely distorted his record." He said the confirmation process will allow him to show his "unequivocal, total support for Israel" and support for sanctions on Iran.
Obama also laid out a vigorous defense of Hagel's record, in spite of the controversial remarks, praising him as a "champion of troops, veterans and their families," noting his leadership at the USO and Department of Veterans Affairs and on Capitol Hill pushing for a post-9/11 GI bill.
Giving nod to some of Hagel's more controversial views, Obama even praised Hagel's "willingness to speak his mind even if it wasn't popular, defied conventional wisdom."
Top Senate Democrats tell ABC News there is no guarantee Hagel will win confirmation and that, as of right now, there are enough Democratic Senators with serious concerns about Hagel to put him below 50 votes.
But that could change, with many top lawmakers publicly vowing to withhold final judgment until Hagel has an opportunity to answer his critics during confirmation hearings. No senator has yet publicly vowed to filibuster the Hagel nomination.
Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran and businessman who served in the senate from 1997 to 2009. After having sat on that chamber's Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, he has in recent years gathered praise from current and former diplomats for his work on Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board as well as on Panetta's policy board.
"Chuck Hagel is a tremendous patriot and statesman, served incredibly in Vietnam, served this country as a United States senator. He hasn't had a chance to speak for himself. And so why all the prejudging?" said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., on "This Week."
"In America, you give everybody a chance to speak for themselves and then we'll decide," she said.
The top Senate Republican echoed that sentiment.
"I'm going to wait and see how the hearings go and see whether Chuck's views square with the job he would be nominated to do," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.