New York Sen. Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday he'd support Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary, removing a major obstacle to his nomination and greatly increasing the chances he'll be confirmed, even as Hagel continues to face opposition from the right.
Schumer's backing is a major sign that Democrats who have expressed squeamishness over his nomination are starting to come on board. And with Democrats now holding a 55-45 majority in the Senate, Hagel's prospects greatly brightened with Schumer's support for his nomination.
In a statement Tuesday, Schumer said Hagel addressed his concerns over Israel and Iran during a 90-minute Monday meeting at the White House, saying the former Nebraska senator had been "forthcoming and sincere." Regarding Iran, Schumer said that Hagel rejected a containment strategy regarding the country and said that the U.S. would do "whatever it takes" to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Planning military contingencies against Iran would be Hagel's "top priority" as defense secretary, Schumer said.
Moreover, Hagel told Schumer that he backs unilateral sanctions against Iran. On Hezbollah, Hagel pointed to past comments he made where he referred to it as a terrorist group. And despite previously caling for direct talks with leaders of Hamas, Hagel said he now believes there should be "no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist."
"Based on several key assurances provided by Sen. Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," Schumer said. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."
Schumer's support may mean a major tipping point for Hagel's nomination, given his clout within the Senate Democratic Caucus and his deep ties to pro-Israel hawks on and off the Hill. And they're an important sign that Democrats who have expressed concerns over his nomination are starting to come on board, as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) did Monday night.
Most notably, Democrats have raised concerns that Hagel has been too quick to call for direct engagement with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah rather than push tougher measures preferred by pro-Israel members of the Senate Democratic Caucus. But Hagel has appeared to have alleviated those fears ahead of his crucial confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the coming weeks.
Underlining the importance of Schumer's support, the New York Democrat was the first to meet face-to-face with Hagel - an unusual move for a Cabinet nominee to immediately meet with a senator who does not serve on the committee of jurisdiction. The two met for 90 minutes Monday morning in the West Wing of the White House, where Schumer also met with President Barack Obama. The senator told the president he needed assurances from Hagel over his positions on Israel and Iran before he could support the nominee, a Senate aide said. Schumer telephoned Hagel Tuesday morning to tell him he'd support his nomination.
"I know some will question whether Senator Hagel's assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post," Schumer said. "But I don't think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality."
The White House and Hagel both clearly recognize that wooing Jewish Democrats -- like Schumer and Boxer -- are a top priority before the former Nebraska GOP senator's confirmation hearings.
Hagel sent a letter Monday to Boxer, also outlining a more hawkish stance toward Hezbollah and Iran. Hagel apologized for previously using the term "Jewish lobby," calling it a "very poor choice of words." And Boxer -- who does not serve on the Armed Services Committee -- announced her support of Hagel, a sign of growing support on the left.
In his meeting with Schumer, Hagel said he "always supported Israel's right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas," the senator said.
Schumer added Hagel gave him several assurances that U.S.-Israeli cooperation would continue if he's confirmed, saying that the former Nebraska GOP senator would push for delivering F-35 joint strikers to Israel. Hagel reportedly said he'd urge the president to decline joining in any NATO exercises if Turkey insists on excluding Israel.
Still, such assurances alone are not enough to stop opposition among Republicans, who believe Hagel espouses a doveish world view. Among other things, they are quick to criticize his furious opposition to the troop surge in Iraq, which they call a success, and they say his words do little to correct a 12-year Senate record that didn't fully advocate for Israeli interests.
On the left, some have raised concerns over Hagel's support of gay rights -- especially after 1998 comments about a Clinton diplomat who he called an "openly aggressively gay." Hagel later apologized for this remark.
In his letter to Boxer and comments to Schumer, Hagel said he supports the full repeal of the "Don't ask, Don't tell" law that prohibits the service of openly gay servicemembers. He also said he would fully implement a policy ensuring military women who are victims of rape and incest have full access to abortion services.
"In general, I believe any president deserves latitude in selecting his own advisors," Schumer said. "While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Senator Hagel's thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination."
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