(CBS NEWS) -- 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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,"
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.