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Chuck Hagel vetted for Cabinet post

Washington (CNN) — Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel has met with both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, as the president considers tapping him to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary, according to several knowledgeable sources.

Several sources familiar with the process say Hagel appears to have the inside track for the job. CNN has previously reported Hagel is on the short list of potential nominees. One Democratic source familiar with the process simply dubs Hagel “the frontrunner.” Another Democrat with knowledge of the process calls Hagel’s nomination “almost a done deal.” But according to an administration official, no decisions have been made.

Reuters reported that Obama and Hagel met early last week.

Hagel, who serves as the co-chair of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, is someone well-known to the president. He crossed party lines to endorse Obama for president in 2008, and traveled with him to Afghanistan and Iraq. He is also friendly with Biden because both men worked together on a variety of foreign policy issues when they served in the Senate.

Since leaving the Senate in 2009, Hagel has remained engaged in public policy. He now heads the nonpartisan Atlantic Council. But he is known as someone who supports “engagement” and “soft power.” He opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and was against the Bush administration’s troop surge there in 2007.

Many Senate Republicans would no doubt raise questions about Hagel’s foreign policy positions.

If nominated and confirmed, Hagel would be Obama’s second Republican defense secretary. Bob Gates stayed on when Obama took office after having served in the role under Bush. If not nominated for the Pentagon, there is also a possibility that Hagel might be considered for another post.

Sources say others under consideration for the defense post include Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, who was previously a top Pentagon official.

Carter, who has helped oversee the Pentagon’s recent belt tightening, would be viewed as well suited to lead the sprawling agency during a period of fiscal austerity. Flournoy would make history as the first woman ever to run the Pentagon.

Panetta has indicted he would like to return to private life in California in 2013.

Both sources also confirm, as CNN has previously reported, that current chief of staff Jack Lew is likely to be nominated as treasury secretary.

One knowledgeable source says that any changes at the staff level- or in the economic team- are likely to be put on hold until there is a clearer picture of the fate of the fiscal cliff negotiations.

The question of who will be asked to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton-and when-remains unanswered. One of the Democratic sources says the president remains a “very big Susan Rice fan,” but also adds that “the longer he lets her (Rice) hang out there, the harder it is. The last week was not good for her.”

Rice, the U.N. ambassador, traveled to Capitol Hill recently to meet with skeptical Republicans about her role in the controversy over the administration’s public response to the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

The sessions seemed to do little to assuage their questions. One moderate Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, emerged from her session clearly unenthusiastic about a potential Rice nomination.

Both sources say that the question of Rice’s future is very closely held, as is the question of the timing of any nomination. One knowledgeable source indicated some announcements on the foreign policy front could be made next week. Sources also caution that these nominations should be seen as part of a larger picture: As in a chess game, each move affects the next move.

For instance, there is a consideration of working relationships, the president’s “comfort level, and issues like diversity. If Rice were not to be nominated as secretary of state, the top four Cabinet posts-attorney general, defense, treasury and state-would all be filled by men, if the State Department nod was given to Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) instead of Rice.

One of the knowledgeable sources says the White House is considering former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland or outgoing Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire for the position of transportation secretary.

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