Former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) path to confirmation as the next secretary of Defense took a significant step forward on Tuesday when Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would vote for President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon.
Schumer issued a clear endorsement of Hagel on Tuesday and called for other lawmakers with similar concerns about the nominee’s views on Israel and Iran to support him.
Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat and highest-ranking Jewish member, will give political cover to Democrats aligned with him who might have reservations about Hagel.
It appears that Hagel will gain the backing of most — if not all — Senate Democrats, which would mean that only a near-united Republican filibuster could stop his confirmation.
While a half-dozen GOP senators have said they will vote against Hagel, and many others have expressed concerns, none have yet suggested they would attempt to block his nomination.
“The fact that Schumer says he’s going to support him breaks the logjam,” said Lawrence Korb, a former DOD official and analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “I can’t see any Democrats voting against him now.”
Schumer’s endorsement came after Hagel expressed regret for his remark that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates people, calling it a “poor choice of words.”
“I regret saying it,” Hagel wrote in a letter to Boxer. “I used that terminology only once, in an interview. I recognize that this kind of language can be construed as anti-Israel. I know the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans.”
In the letter to Boxer, Hagel vowed to “expand the depth and breadth of U.S.-Israel cooperation.”
Pro-Israel groups have blasted Hagel for the “Jewish lobby” comment and accused him of being weak on Iran and Hamas. The former Nebraska senator also faced pushback from the gay-rights lobby for calling an ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay” in 1998.
Hagel had apologized in December for the statement about the diplomat.
Schumer endorsed Hagel after meeting with him for 90 minutes at the White House on Monday, and said in a statement that the nominee “could not have been more forthcoming and sincere.”
“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.”
Hagel continued his outreach on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where he had meetings with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
He’s spoken by phone with several dozen senators and reached out to all 100 to meet before his confirmation hearing, according to sources working on his confirmation.
Still, Hagel supporters weren’t declaring victory just yet, following Schumer’s endorsement; the Pentagon nominee still faces a contentious confirmation hearing and some Republican opposition.
Many GOP critics like Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who also take issue with Hagel’s stance against the Iraq war, have yet to weigh in on their former Senate colleague.
“This does nothing to change his troubling positions and past statements on some of the most critical national-security issues this nation faces,” said one GOP aide. “I don’t envy the task of explaining support for a nominee who has called for direct talks with a terrorist organization to New Yorkers.”
The Republican National Committee kept up pressure on the nominee in an email to supporters Tuesday morning. It had the subject line: “Hagel in a pretzel.”
“Obama’s nominee is changing his tune on a wide range of issues,” the group wrote, citing Hagel’s support for a military option to stop Iran’s nuclear program and his comments on the “Jewish lobby.”
A source close to the outreach said Hagel’s strategy in his confirmation meetings is to win over skeptical senators by walking them through his prior positions and statements and explaining where he stands now.
The official said that Hagel has always believed in the security of Israel and preventing a nuclear Iran, but said that the tactics needed to accomplish those goals have changed over the years.
In his letter to Boxer, Hagel offered reassurances on Israel, where much of the opposition has focused.
“In the Senate, I was a strong supporter of defense appropriations, which provided enduring support for Israel’s security,” Hagel said.
He added that most Americans “are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship.”
Critics have also questioned Hagel’s past calls for the U.S. to engage diplomatically with Iran and Hamas, and his opposition to unilateral U.S. sanctions on Tehran. While he didn’t address that issue specifically in his letter to Boxer, Hagel said he fully supports all of the Obama administration’s Iran policies.
“I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions — both multilateral and unilateral — may be necessary and I will support the president,” he wrote.
He also said he had “always supported Israel’s right to defend itself against attack.”
Schumer said in his endorsement that he felt Hagel was being “genuine” about his positions on the Middle East.
“I know some will question whether Sen. Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But
I don’t think so,” Schumer said. “Sen. 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.”
Boxer said that Hagel had “pledged without reservation to support President Obama’s polices — policies that I believe have made our world safer and our alliances stronger.”
In a nod to gay-rights groups, Hagel in the letter to Boxer said he supports the “complete repeal of the discriminatory ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” He pledged to do “everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”
“People have evolved on this issue, and I believe Chuck Hagel is definitely one of those people,” Boxer said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Jonathan Easley contributed.
—This story was originally posted at 9:17 a.m. and last updated at 7:55 p.m.