WASHINGTON – Sen. Charles E. Schumer on Tuesday announced his support for Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, saying a 90- minute meeting with the former Nebraska senator was enough to allay earlier concerns about the nominee’s views on Iran and Israel.
Calling the Monday meeting “a very constructive session,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement: “Based on several key assurances provided by Sen. Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
Schumer’s support was considered essential for the Hagel nomination to move forward, given Schumer’s clout and the bipartisan criticism Hagel’s nomination has produced.
Several key Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have expressed deep reservations about Hagel, a moderate Republican, because of his criticism of the Iraq War. Meanwhile, some Democrats have had qualms over his views on Israel and long-ago comments on gay rights.
For Schumer, the key concerns were whether Hagel would be tough enough in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and whether the nominee fully supports Israel.
In their meeting at the White House, Schumer said, Hagel eased those concerns, as well as others about gay rights.
“In our conversation, Sen. Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force,” Schumer said.
Hagel also told Schumer that preparing to meet any challenge from Iran would be his “top priority” as defense secretary. In addition, Hagel said he supports current Obama administration sanctions against Iran, while adding that further sanctions may be necessary.
On Israel, Hagel told Schumer that he supports Israel’s right to retaliate against attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas.
“He understood the predicament Israel is in when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there,” Schumer said. “He supported Israel’s right to defend herself even in those difficult circumstances.”
And despite earlier indications and statements, Hagel made clear that he considers Hezbollah and Hamas to be terrorist organizations the U.S. should not negotiate with until they renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“Regarding his unfortunate use of the term ‘Jewish lobby’ to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Sen. Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it,” said Schumer, one of the leading Jewish legislators in Congress and the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
As for Hagel’s views on gay rights, he apparently quelled concerns over his late 1990s comments about a gay nominee for an ambassadorship, James Hormel. At the time, Hagel labeled Hormel “openly, aggressively gay,” prompting gay rights advocates to question Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary 14 years later.
Hagel apologized for those comments last month, and in the meeting with Schumer, he said he supported repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which until recently forced gays in the military to remain in the closet.
Schumer said he is convinced that Hagel’s evolved views on all those issues are genuine and not just words aimed at ensuring his confirmation. “While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Sen. Hagel’s thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination,” Schumer said.