NEW YORK — Senator Chuck Schumer, the pro-Israel New York Democrat whose skepticism over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary was thought to be a key obstacle to Hagel’s appointment, has called on fellow senators to approve the nomination.
Following a 90-minute meeting with Hagel in the White House’s West Wing on Monday, and a second meeting that day with Obama, Schumer says he changed his mind.
“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer said in a prepared statement. “I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him. Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas,” he explained.
Hagel also said he believed in “no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Schumer said.
“On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Teheran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force.
“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 noted.
“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.”
Schumer phoned Hagel on Tuesday to tell him of his decision.
Hagel plans a series of meetings with senators in the coming weeks to shore up support before the confirmation hearings and Senate vote expected in a few weeks. He has already moved into a temporary office in the Pentagon to begin his transition into the new cabinet post.
Reactions on Tuesday seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom that saw Schumer — a staunchly pro-Israel Jewish Democrat from New York expected by some to be voted the next Democratic leader in the Senate — as a bellwether of Hagel’s chances.
Hagel has faced withering criticism in the month since his name was first raised as the White House’s leading candidate for the nomination. His conservative social views have been anathema to many Democrats, with blogs and television commentators noting his stances on abortion and gay rights. His outspoken skepticism about American foreign policy under Bush — and support for Democratic candidates in recent Senate races — has made him enemies among Republican senators. And his views on the Middle East, including criticism of Israel and past suggestions that the US could live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, have raised the ire of many pro-Israel groups and senators.
Schumer also said Hagel had given promises to support access to health insurance for members of the US military who seek to obtain an abortion in cases of sexual assault, an issue that concerned Democrats who pointed to Hagel’s past staunch pro-life positions, and that the Obama appointee would support the rights of gay servicemembers.
Hagel’s confirmation seems more or less assured with the latest round of declared support, which includes Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), former Bush secretary of state Colin Powell, and others, and by the stark fact that only two presidential cabinet appointments have been rejected by the Senate since the 1950s.
Boxer expressed support for Hagel on Monday after receiving a letter from Hagel and speaking with him by phone.
In the letter, Hagel assured the California Democrat of his support for unilateral sanctions on Iran, a position he opposed as a senator.
“Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong US-Israel strategic and security relationship,” Hagel wrote to Boxer. “This broad support comes from both Jews and non-Jews alike.”
Boxer said, “I asked him about a number of issues — including America’s special relationship with Israel, the threats posed by Iran to the world and the treatment of women and gay and lesbian members of our military — and his answers were reassuring and show a sensitivity and understanding of these issues.”
Cabinet appointments rarely outlast the sitting president, and senators have traditionally viewed the Senate’s “advise and consent” function as a formality.