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BOSTON – Maine Sen. Angus King said Thursday that he sees no strong reason to oppose President Barack Obama's pick for secretary of defense.
The newly elected senator, an independent, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he won't make a final decision on former Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination until confirmation hearings are finished. King serves as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on Jan. 31.
"I start with a presumption that the president should be able to appoint his own people to his Cabinet. So unless there's some strong disqualifying element or quality to the nominee, I start with that positive presumption," King said.
Asked whether he saw a strong disqualifying element or quality with Hagel, King said, "No."
"But I want to see what the testimony is at the hearing and have a chance to talk to him directly," he added.
King said he was scheduled to meet privately with Hagel on Friday, but a King spokesman says the meeting has been moved to next week.
Hagel did meet Thursday with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Leahy had previously expressed his support for the nominee. In a statement, he called Hagel "superb and highly qualified."
"I know his sense of integrity and his great knowledge of our defense and foreign policies," Leahy said. "He knows about national defense from the ground up and from his own deeply personal experience — he still carries the wounds of war. The fact that he would be the first enlisted service member to head the Pentagon is significant, and it is timely."
A handful of Republicans have expressed their opposition to Hagel, a Republican who served two terms as a senator from Nebraska. His nomination gained some Democratic momentum this week with the backing of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer, but the opposition of the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, was a blow.
If confirmed, Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran to serve as the secretary of defense.
"The idea that he's been an enlisted man, a decorated Vietnam veteran, he knows the reality of the life of the ordinary soldier is a big plus," King said. "I've heard people dismiss that, say, 'Oh, that's no big deal.' I think it is. I think it's a significant piece of what he brings to this position."