Hagel to meet Schumer to discuss Iran, Israel

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), President Obama’s pick for Defense secretary, will hold a key meeting today with Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a source working on Hagel's nomination confirmed to The Hill.

In the meeting, Schumer, a strong supporter of Israel in Congress, will press Hagel to explain his views toward the U.S. ally and Iran, according to a report in The New York Times.

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The meeting is shaping up to be a key test of Hagel’s support ahead of what will be a contentious confirmation. Schumer has told aides he could back Hagel, depending on their talks, the report says. Schumer’s support could sway other Democratic senators to also publicly back the nominee.

The former Nebraska senator, who has been tapped to replace outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta, has faced sharp criticism from many senators and pro-Israel groups for his views on Middle East policy. Those critics have seized on past remarks from Hagel accusing a “Jewish lobby” of intimidating lawmakers and his calls for high-level diplomatic talks with Iran and Hamas.

Schumer is expected to push Hagel to explain those remarks and clarify his stance on Iran.

Hagel has previously expressed reluctance to support military options to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and voted against imposing unilateral economic sanctions. The report suggests that Schumer would like reassurances that Hagel would back a more forceful stance against Iran, including support for U.S. sanctions.

Hagel has said he backs the Obama administration’s current sanctions, imposed in concert with the European Union and other allies.

A source told the Times that Schumer will also ask Hagel to explain his stance on gay-rights issues and abortion.

Pro-gay-rights groups have also raised questions about his nomination, highlighting Hagel’s past comments about an openly gay ambassadorial nominee, whom the former senator described as “aggressively gay” and whose nomination he opposed.

Hagel earlier this month apologized for those remarks, but gay-rights groups have questioned whether he will be committed to enforcing the administration’s policies undoing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Many GOP lawmakers have already said they would oppose Hagel’s confirmation, with many Democrats remaining on the fence.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), David Vitter (R-La.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have said they would vote against him. And on Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) questioned Hagel’s “temperament,” saying that reports from former staffers about how they were treated by Hagel should be looked at during the confirmation. 

But Hagel has received strong support from the administration, which has touted his record as a combat veteran.

On Sunday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a strong defense of the Pentagon nominee, calling him “superbly qualified based on his overall record, his service to the country.”

Winning Schumer’s support could be crucial with lawmakers still uncommitted to Hagel.

Independent Sen. Angus King (Maine) on Monday said the nominee would need to put to rest any concerns over his policy views.

“I think it depends on him convincing a number of members of the Senate, particularly Sen. Schumer, that he's got a balanced approach to the Middle East, he has the right temperament, the right background,” said King on CBS’s “This Morning.”

Jeremy Herb and Daniel Strauss contributed.

This story was updated at 10:51 a.m.

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