Published Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 | 8:56 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 | 1:21 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel secured the backing of two of the staunchest pro-Israel Senate Democrats in a clear boost to the Republican's prospects of becoming President Barack Obama's next defense secretary.
Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California said Tuesday that they had spoken extensively with Hagel and he had addressed their earlier reservations about whether he was "anti-Israel," too soft on Iran and opposed to gay rights.
"Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," Schumer said the day after a 90-minute meeting with Hagel at the White House. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."
Boxer expressed her support and urged fellow senators to do the same after receiving a letter from Hagel in which he insisted that he supports Obama's foreign policy positions. In the letter, the former Nebraska senator also expressed regret for using the term "Jewish lobby" to describe pro-Israel groups, calling it a "very poor choice of words."
Republicans said it was highly unlikely that Schumer and Boxer would have opposed a Democratic president's nominee at the start of Obama's second term. Still, the support of two of the most prominent Jewish members of the Senate is certain to ease concerns among pro-Israel lawmakers and rally noncommittal Democrats to Hagel's side.
The Republican nominee must contend with opposition from the GOP ranks as Obama faces challenges to his choices in a fiercely partisan atmosphere. A handful of Republicans have announced their opposition to Hagel, including John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking GOP senator.
"From what I've seen there seems to be a Republican push here to really go after Sen. Hagel, which is really quite disturbing," Boxer said in a conference call with reporters.
Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate and would have the votes to confirm Hagel on a simple majority, but they would need five Republican votes for the 60-vote threshold to break a GOP filibuster. A Republican effort to block Obama's choice of a former Republican senator would set off a firestorm as Senate leaders try to negotiate new rules on filibusters.
Hagel, who has reached out to all 100 senators, also was meeting with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Tuesday.
Schumer met with Hagel Monday afternoon at the White House and then spoke to Obama in the Oval Office, according to a Senate aide. The New York senator telephoned Hagel Tuesday morning to tell him of his support.
Schumer said Hagel told him that he backs all steps necessary, including the use of military force, to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Schumer also said Hagel told him that he has always supported Israel's right to retaliate militarily against attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas, two groups he considers terrorist organizations.
Schumer said Hagel also provided assurances on gay rights and abortion rights for members of the military.
"I know some will question whether Senator 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. "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."
Boxer said Hagel assured her that he would carry out Obama's policies "without reservation." Schumer said the Pentagon nominee mollified him on the issue of unilateral sanctions on Iran, which Hagel has said in the past were ineffective.
"In our meeting, however, Senator Hagel clarified that he 'completely' supports President Obama's current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary," the New York senator said.
Boxer said Hagel, like others, has evolved on gay rights. She said that he promised to meet with her on issues such as sexual assault in the military.
Responding to the criticism of Hagel, Boxer said, "I feel people are being very unfair to Chuck Hagel."
Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.