Democratic support for Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary grew on Thursday as the former Republican senator allayed concerns about his past statements on Israel and Iran.
Sens. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Chris Coons of Delaware and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said they met with Hagel this week and were reassured by his commitment to Israel’s security.
Hagel would replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down. Despite early misgivings, about a dozen Democrats have announced they would vote for his nomination, and none has declared opposition to President Barack Obama’s choice.
Six Republicans have said they would vote against Hagel, with some stating their opposition before Obama announced his pick on Jan. 7.
“Senator Hagel clarified his position on Iran sanctions and Israel, and I am confident he is firmly committed to ensuring a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” Lautenberg said, adding that he and his colleagues will be watching closely “to ensure that issues of concern do not emerge as he takes on this critical position.”
Separately, 13 former secretaries of defense and state as well as national security advisers sent a letter to members of the Senate strongly endorsing Hagel. Among them was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has worked for Republican and Democratic administrations, and George Schultz and Brent Scowcroft, veterans of GOP administrations.
“For those of us honored to have served as members of a president’s national security team, Sen. Hagel clearly understands the essence and the burdens of leadership required of this high office,” the former officials wrote.
Hagel, who served two terms as Nebraska senator, has faced opposition from GOP-leaning outside groups over his past statements about the power of the “Jewish lobby” of pro-Israel groups and his doubts about the effectiveness of unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Not one GOP lawmaker has endorsed the nominee. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., writing in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, all but announced his opposition.
“When we are faced with unpredictable national security crises, we can’t afford to have a secretary of defense who has unpredictable judgment,” Barrasso wrote.
Other lawmakers have said they are waiting for Hagel’s confirmation hearing next Thursday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and would have the votes to confirm Hagel.
“Chuck is a combat veteran and foot soldier who has a unique understanding of the challenges faced by our men and women in uniform, and a practical leader who understands the need for common sense in military spending and national security strategy,” Manchin said in a statement.
Coons said he believes Hagel “will be a strong and effective secretary of defense, and I will be proud to vote for his confirmation.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who met with Hagel on Thursday, said he had satisfied her concerns and she felt his responses were sincere. A member of the Armed Services Committee, she said she would reserve judgment until after the hearing but described Hagel as well-qualified for the job.
Their statements came shortly after Sen. John Kerry, the president’s choice for secretary of state, found himself defending Hagel at his confirmation hearing.
“I know Chuck Hagel. I think he is a strong patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense,” Kerry said of Hagel, who, like Kerry, served in Vietnam.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker questioned Kerry about Hagel’s support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons. Possible reductions and modernization of the nuclear arsenal are major issues for the Tennessee lawmaker, who has the Y-12 nuclear facility in his state.
Corker has expressed concerns about Hagel, questioning whether the Republican’s “overall temperament” makes his suitable for the job.
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