In major boost, Schumer backs Hagel confirmation

US Senator Chuck Hagel waits for Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso at the premier's official residence on October 16, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate and a close ally of pro-Israel advocacy groups, today announced that he would back Chuck Hagel's nomination for defense secretary.

Schumer's decision is a major boost for Hagel, who has come under criticism from pro-Israel groups concerned by his comments on Israel, including a past reference to a "Jewish lobby," and suggestion that he would not support a military strike to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon. Hagel is a former Republican senator whose nomination was greeted with skepticism on both sides of the aisle, and he is in the process of meeting with senators in an effort to persuade them to vote to confirm him.

"Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," Schumer said today. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."

Schumer and Hagel met for 90 minutes Monday afternoon at the White House, and Schumer phoned Hagel this morning to inform him of his decision, according to a Senate aide.

Schumer said in his statement that Hagel had "rejected a strategy of containment" for Iran "and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country." He also said that Hagel went further, saying he would do "whatever it takes" to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon, including using military force. Schumer said Hagel informed him that his "top priority" as defense secretary would be planning military contingencies tied to Iran. Hagel, who voted against sanctions against Iran as a Republican Nebraska senator, told Schumer he supports the stringent sanctions put in place against the country under President Obama.

Schumer said Hagel also said he considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization "notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past" and assured him that he does not support negotiations with Hamas until the group renounces violence against Israel and recognizes that nation's right to exist. In 2009, Hagel signed a letter calling on the president to open direct talks with Hamas leaders. As a senator, he declined to sign a letter to the European Union calling on Hezbollah to be deemed a terrorist group.

Schumer also said Hagel expressed regret for the "Jewish lobby" comment and promised to work to deliver F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel on time and provide U.S. assistance on the "Iron Dome."

"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."

"In general, I believe any President deserves latitude in selecting his own advisors," he added. "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."

Schumer's statement comes a day after Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced her support for Hagel. Boxer, who had held off backing Hagel due to his controversial statements, said she decided to support him after speaking to him "extensively" on the phone and after receiving answers to several questions she had for him.

"First and foremost, he has pledged without reservation to support President Obama's polices - policies that I believe have made our world safer and our alliances stronger," Boxer said in a statement Monday night.

"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. In addition, Senator Hagel has pledged to meet with me once he has been confirmed for a more detailed discussion about the Defense Department's efforts to combat sexual assault in the military," she added.

Schumer's and Boxer's support for Hagel is likely to prompt other Democrats with ties to pro-Israel groups to follow suit, and should significantly ease his path to confirmation.