WASHINGTON — Former Sen. 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 secretary of defense.
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. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said late Tuesday that he would oppose Hagel's nomination.
"We are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination," Inhofe said in a statement following a meeting with Hagel.
A handful of other Republicans have announced their opposition to Hagel, including John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking GOP senator.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins spoke in generally positive terms about the nominee after a 90-minute meeting, but said she would reserve judgment until after confirmation hearings.
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.