Schumer to back Hagel as defense secretary

January 15, 2013

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced his support Tuesday for the nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, delivering a key vote for the Nebraska Republican’s confirmation after weeks of voicing doubt about his positions on security issues related to Israel and Iran.

Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat and most senior Jewish senator, made the decision after a 90-minute meeting Monday in the West Wing, a secretive huddle that Schumer and White House officials kept under wraps until the decision to announce his support Tuesday.

“Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere,” Schumer said Tuesday in a statement. “Based on several key assurances provided by Senator 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 informed Obama of his decision Monday after the meeting with Hagel, phoning the former senator Tuesday morning to formalize his support, according to a Senate aide familiar with the discussion.

Schumer said that his support was sewn up after Hagel — whom Obama formally nominated last week after a month of preparation — committed to several positions regarding Iran that met with Schumer’s preference. As a two-term senator, Hagel called for direct talks with the Iranian government and opposed unilateral sanctions by the United States against Iran. In a detailed statement, Schumer said Hagel left no doubt that he would support an aggressive posture toward Tehran.

“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,” Schumer said. “In our conversation, Senator 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. He said his ‘top priority’ as secretary of defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran.”

Schumer said Hagel also pledged to continue supporting the delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Israel and in general supported Israel’s right to a strong “qualitative military edge,” as its leaders like to assert.

Schumer had become a key linchpin in the nomination battle, as many senior Republicans have expressed deep doubt about Hagel’s confirmation. If Schumer had opposed Hagel, then a crucial bloc of pro-Israel Democrats might have joined him and made confirmation impossible. Schumer’s announcement follows the public endorsement of Hagel by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), another prominent Jewish Democrat who is also a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I needed comprehensive answers,” Boxer told reporters Tuesday in a conference call, explaining that she demanded that Hagel follow up their phone discussion with a letter memorializing his answers on Israel and Iran. In his talks with Boxer and Schumer, Hagel expressed deep regret at his “Jewish lobby” remark years ago when referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

“He was very devastated by it, looking back,” Boxer said.

White House officials made Schumer the first senator to formally meet with Hagel, whose views were not just a confirmation assurance, according to Schumer. “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.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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